It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Red Planet" would have been a great 1950s science fiction film. It embodies the kind of nuts-and-bolts sci-fi championed by John W. Campbell Jr. in his Astounding magazine--right down to the notion that a space mission would be staffed by research scientists, and although there would be a woman on board, she would not be the kind of woman depicted in an aluminum brassiere on the covers of his competitors. This is a film where much of the suspense involves the disappearance of algae.
The film has been sneered at in some quarters because it is not the kind of brainless high-tech computerized effects extravaganza now in favor. I like its emphasis on situation and character. I've always been fascinated by zero-sum plots in which a task has to be finished within the available supplies of time, fuel and oxygen.
Waiting for the screening to start, I was talking with a dive instructor about the challenge of diving inside glaciers. "Any time you take away unobstructed access to the surface," he told me, "you're talking technical diving, and that makes you more of an astronaut than a diver." I thought of that during "Red Planet," which is about four men who have essentially dived down to the surface of Mars, whose air is running out, and who do not have access to the spaceship circling above.
The movie takes place in 2025, when mankind has polluted the Earth beyond the point of no return, and is seeking a new planet to colonize. Mars is bombarded with robot space probes carrying various strains of bio-engineered algae. The earth-born organisms seem to thrive, and green pastures spread on Mars. A space mission is launched to send a crew of scientists to investigate a curious thing. The algae seems to have disappeared. Really disappeared. It didn't simply die off, because that would have left withered remains. It seems to have . . . dematerialized.