Nathan Smith

'Mission to Mars' at 20: Why the Red Planet burned brightest in the year 2000

20 years ago, Hollywood became suddenly obsessed with Mars. But do either Mission to Mars or Red Planet hold up today?

On July 4, 1997, the Pathfinder rover touched down on Mars, the first successful landing since the Viking probes in the ‘70s.

Pathfinder and the numerous missions that followed marked a period of renewed interest in space exploration on the part of the American public, so it was only natural that Hollywood would take note.

Three years later, movie theaters presented two very different trips to Mars: Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars and Antony Hoffman’s Red Planet. Neither movie performed very well. Mission to Mars released 20 years ago today (March 6) and barely made back its $100 million budget; Red Planet followed on 10 November 2000 and struggled to gross half of its $80 million budget.

Each movie has its own unique approach to showing space exploration, something we humans have been obsessed with since forever.

'Mission to Mars'Touchstone Pictures

Mars: It’s not the planet closest to us, but it’s the one we see ourselves in. It’s a planet that looks a little like ours, with poles and seasons and the possibility that maybe once it was home to a species not so dissimilar from ourselves. The likelihood of life on Mars today is slim, but there’s a more sinister appeal in the emptiness too. Seemingly unoccupied and possibly hospitable, Mars represents an opportunity to conquer, colonize, and develop an entirely new world.

Even as NASA’s budget is whittled down, we’re still intent on solving the riddle of the red planet. In 2018, Mars InSight became the 16th lander to roam the Martian surface and the first to drill below it. NASA plans to launch another rover this year, with probes from other nations joining throughout the decade.

'Red Planet'Village Roadshow Pictures

Mission to Mars and Red Planet came out during the early days of the Internet, but there were still plenty of science nerds online picking these movies apart. Bad Astronomy, a site where astronomer Phil Plait debunked faulty science in pop culture, gets into the scientific nitty-gritty of each, from the various NASA protocol the astronauts violate (all the astronauts would never be allowed to leave base camp at the same time, as they do in Mission to Mars) to incorrect first aid (Carrie-Anne Moss doesn’t pump fast enough when she does CPR on Val Kilmer in Red Planet).

It also wasn’t the first time two similar, space-themed blockbusters came out around the same time. Three years earlier, audiences had to pick which asteroid disaster they’d prefer, Armageddon or Deep Impact. Those two movies had a considerable amount in common — they’re both hyper-patriotic action melodramas about how cataclysmic disasters bring us closer together.

By comparison, Mission to Mars and Red Planet don’t actually share that much as stories; both remind me of other sci-fi movies from the year 2000 more than they do each other. In its emphasis on realism, emotional investment in the characters, and dad rock needledrops, Mission to Mars is closer to the Space Cowboys side of the spectrum, a classically-made movie from a classic filmmaker. Red Planet, on the other hand, is a little more like Pitch Black, a synthesis of sci-fi and survival horror, just with more scientific data and less Vin Diesel.

Several years before Pirates of the Caribbean, Mission to Mars was actually the first theatrically-released film adapted from an attraction at a Disney theme park. The Touchstone Pictures production was inspired by the EPCOT ride of the same name, which replaced Disneyland’s iconic Flight to the Moon attraction after man finally set foot on the moon — Mission to Mars star Gary Sinise would later appear in the introductory video for Disneyland’s Mission: SPACE simulator, the current version of the ride.

'Mission to Mars'Touchstone Pictures

Set in 2020, Mission to Mars depicts the first manned mission to the planet, a goal that seemed plausible in 2000 but that we haven’t achieved in the real 2020. Being about the near-future, Mission to Mars presents itself as a mixture of scientific information and entertainment spectacle, much like the EPCOT park.

Mission reaffirms its supposed credibility with bits of science that feel like elementary chemistry experiments. At one point, a meteor punctures tiny holes in the spaceship, which the crew is able to detect by pouring out a can of Dr. Pepper — the liquid is pulled toward the holes and freezes once it leaks into space. As Plait points out in his review of the film, it’s pretty damn cold in space, but not cold enough to freeze soda on instant contact. By his estimate, the Dr. Pepper would actually boil, as liquid does in a vacuum at room temperature.

Once the movie lands on Mars, all bets are off as far as factuality is concerned. Mission to Mars jumps headfirst into what some reviewers at the time dismissed as “mystical mumbo-jumbo.” There’s a vicious sand monster straight out of The Mummy, as well as the discovery of a lost alien race who seeded life on Earth after their own civilization was wiped out on Mars. The last half-hour is straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, complete with Gary Sinise becoming one with the Martians. It’s totally bogus, but the sequence that reimagines the entire evolution of life on Earth is compelling in its use of effects, and surprisingly moving.

'Mission to Mars'Touchstone Pictures

Red Planet never sets foot on Earth and jumps much further into the future. A sequence of title cards and narration from Carrie-Anne Moss tell us of Earth’s environmental deterioration up until 2057, when the movies takes place. A series of experimental missions have attempted to terraform Mars by seeding algae on the surface in the hopes that it will produce oxygen. Now, a crew is being sent to investigate the results.

It’s actually a little bit of a hang-out movie before becoming a full-fledged thriller. For the first quarter of the movie, the crew just chills on their ship, listening to trip-hop and talking about god. Terence Stamp pontificates on the Great Beyond and Val Kilmer brews space moonshine.

As its set further in the future, Red Planet doesn’t strive to be believable in the same way that Mission to Mars does — there’s a killer robot who pulls a HAL 9000 and goes rogue, and a species of insect who turn whatever they eat into oxygen — but it somehow feels more accurate because it makes science a much more central part of the narrative. As Val Kilmer quips at one point, “This is it. That moment they told us about in high school when algebra would save our lives.”

'Red Planet'Village Roadshow Pictures

Both movies get the color of the Martian sky wrong — Plait describes it as “butterscotch” more than the burnt orange of Mission or the intense auburn of Red Planet — and both were partially shot in Jordan, but they depict very different planets physically. You can see the CGI edges of Mars in Mission, while Red Planet feels much more like an actual desert.

Despite the difference in look and setting, the science at the heart of the two movies is actually very similar thanks to the research of controversial engineer and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin. Zubrin was a technical advisor on Mission to Mars, and the science behind his “Mars Direct” proposal undergirds the premise of Red Planet. Zubrin argued that CO2 could be released from the Martian ice caps, changing the atmosphere enough to allow astronauts to produce oxygen, food, and water. As Plait points out, the titular mission in Mission to Mars is straight out of Mars Direct, a series of installments where an initial crew sets up a camp and subsequent crews bring additional supplies.

The difference between the two movies, then, is one of perspective. In Mission to Mars, science is something meant to awe us with wonder like the spectacle of cinema itself. In Red Planet, it’s a practical tool to help you get home. Like the American space program, these two movies have faded with time, as our scientific interest turns toward more urgent issues than the colonization of Mars. But as Elon Musk promises to put 1 million people on Mars by 2050, one has to wonder what Hollywood’s Martian missions will look like in the future.

'Red Planet'Village Roadshow Pictures
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