Set in the future of 2056 where the Earth is very much on its last legs thanks to mankind's wasteful ways and polluting habits, Red Planet begins when the powers that be figure the only way to save the human race is to basically colonize Mars. Research is put into motion and eventually it looks like the scientists in charge of all of this have succeeded in creating a way for human's to breathe on Mars - but soon after that happens, the readings on the oxygen levels inexplicably drop. With mankind running out of time, a small team is sent off in a spaceship dubbed the Mars-1 to, well, Mars to find out what happened. Made up of the ship's pretty Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss), a geneticist named Quinn Burchenal (Tom Sizemore), a religious scientist named Bud Chantillas (Terence Stamp), a pilot named Ted Santen (Benjamin Bratt), an expert in the science of terraforming named Chip Pettengill (Simon Baker) and last but not least the ship's systems engineer, Robby Gallagher (Val Kilmer) the crew suit up and ship off for the titular red planet with the ship's computerized navigation robot, dubbed AMEE, along for the ride.
Right from the very start it seems that trouble has its icy grip on this excursion and after a few mishaps and mistakes, Gallagher, Burchenal, Chantillas, Santen and Pettengill and are left alone on the surface of the planet with their own rapidly depleting oxygen problems to contend with. While having AMEE with them should have been a help, something has happened to mess up the robots programming and it now sees every living human being around it as an enemy to be eliminated. With only Bowman above ground, orbiting the planet in the ship solo, time is very quickly running out for the five humans on the planet - and it soon becomes very obvious that if the oxygen issues are not corrected immediately, there won't be enough air for all of them to survive.
Red Planet borrows pretty liberally from plenty of sci-fi movies that came before it, but manages to differentiate itself with some unusual philosophical themes and ideas that are veined throughout the film (sometimes more subtly than others). Once the set up is out of the way and our characters are stuck on the planet and quickly running out of time, the script puts them in one sticky morality quagmire after another, in which decisions are ultimately going to result in the life and death of another human being. This gives the movie an interesting and sometimes fairly heavy tone that proves that there are some intelligent ideas behind the special effects and action sequences that give the film plenty of surface appeal. However, with all of this philosophical intent comes some moments of grandstanding preachiness - how much you take out of this will no doubt stem to your own personal faith and strength in that faith and this isn't necessarily a strike against the film, but as stated, it's not always subtle, in fact, it's often heavy handed and it tends to ask more questions than it necessarily wants to even really think about answering.
So with that fairly divisive quality covered, what about the movie as entertainment? It works, quite well, actually - just keep your expectations in check. As mentioned, it's not always the most original film as it throws in elements from all sorts of earlier and better known sci-fi movies from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Armageddon but despite all of this, more often than not it's got a lot going for it. The ending is definitely its own animal and by far the most interesting and original part of the story and the performances are quite good. Kilmer is strong here, basically the male lead, while Moss has never been sexier (sorry Matrix fans!) - and on top of that she too delivers a pretty good effort. The supporting cast are fun in their roles, Sizemore and Stamp in particular, and the production values and special effects are, if occasionally dated, usually quite good as well. Once you remove the questionable existentialism out of the film there's not much here we really haven't seen time and time again, but it's put together well and makes for a fun time killer.
Red Planet debuts on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 2.35.1 1080p high definition transfer that actually looks very good indeed. Detail is strong from start to finish, whether it's a close up showing remarkable facial detail or a highly textured outdoor shot in which we can take in the craggy red planet itself. Colors look nice and bold, very well defined without looking too boosted or high in contrast, while black levels are generally strong if not always reference quality. Some very minor compression artifacts do pop up here and there in a few of the darker scenes but you probably won't notice them if you're not looking for them in the first place. Overall though the movie does look quite good and it's a very noticeable improvement over Warner's previous standard definition release.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix on this disc is also a keeper, offering up a nice, strong low end when the movie calls for it and providing some really fun surround activity and channel separation to help bring the action sequences to life. The score sounds very good and is spread around the mix very nicely to help heighten tension and atmosphere, while the sound effects have plenty of punch to them but never overshadow the properly balanced dialogue which remains crisp and clear from start to finish. Optional Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mixes are also offered in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and German with removable subtitles provided English SDH, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.
Extras are pretty slim here, limited to eight deleted scenes totaling fourteen minutes in length (and not of much particular consequence) and the film's original theatrical trailer - all of this presented in standard definition. Animated menus and chapter stops are also included.
If you don't have to take your science fiction thrillers too seriously to enjoy them, there's some good fun to be had with Red Planet. While it tends to be a bit derivative it benefits from a good cast, some decent production values and a tense, if slightly familiar, story. Throw in some decent effects work and a pretty interesting finale and you've got a pretty entertaining film that looks and sounds very good on Blu-ray and comes recommended for established fans of the film, a rock solid rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.