Humanity, Mars, And A Movie Called “Red Planet”

By Kristy McCaffrey
A planned permanent settlement of Mars via a private enterprise called Mars One has been in the news lately. (More info can be found here.) The first unmanned mission will launch in 2018 and, beginning in 2024, crews of four will be sent every two years. In a rather unprecedented move, an open call for astronauts was offered to the general public, no extraordinary skills necessary. (The crew will undergo several years of training before departure.) The catch? It’s a one-way ride. Once on Mars, these interplanetary travelers will live out their lives on the Red Planet.
While I’m a great fan of science, and the daring innovations that sometimes accompany it, I was greatly dismayed when my 19-year-old son applied. I’m not sure who sobbed more, me or his girlfriend. When he didn’t make the initial cut (there were over 200,000 applicants), I couldn’t hide my sigh of relief. While I truly want him to live a life of curiosity and adventure, I still want to see his handsome mug for Sunday dinner…frequently. Sometimes, I’m a selfish woman. I admit it.
In the spirit of off-world exploration, however, I’d like to share one of my favorite movies. Red Planet, a science fiction film released in 2000, starred Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, and Terence Stamp.
In 2025 A.D., Earth is polluted beyond the point of no return. With the goal of one day colonizing Mars, probes have been depositing algae in an effort to create a breathable atmosphere for more than twenty years, but when the oxygen levels suddenly drop, a mission, Mars-1, is launched to investigate.
Upon reaching orbit the ship is damaged after suffering a massive proton field upset, and the commander, Bowman (Moss), must remain behind while the crew descends to the surface. During a rough landing, in which an important piece of equipment is lost—a military robot called AMEE, short for Autonomous Mapping Exploration and Evasion—they also lose Chantillas (Stamp), chief science officer and doctor.
Gallagher and Chantillas
Landing in the wrong location and with a limited amount of oxygen in their suits, the goal is to find HAB-1, a pre-built habitat that will offer 26 months of food, air and shelter. But HAB-1 has been destroyed, and they have no idea why. On the verge of death by suffocation, Gallagher (Kilmer) opens his face mask, and to his shock discovers a breathable atmosphere—barely, as if at high altitude—on Mars. But it’s enough for them to survive.
They manage to establish contact with Bowman in orbit (via a 50-year-old off-the-shelf computer modem salvaged from a 1997 abandoned rover) and must now make their way to an old Russian rock probe called Cosmos, in the hopes that they can launch it back to Mars-1. Along the way, they must contend with conflicting personalities, the source of that breathable air (hint—there is a life form on Mars but, thankfully, the film doesn’t digress too much into a horror movie) and AMEE, who’s gone rogue (in typical robot fashion) and considers them a threat.
Gallagher and AMEE
Each character offers a slice of humanity. Chantillas (Stamp) is the soul of the group. Straddling the never-ending precipice between technology and religion, he states early on, “Science couldn’t answer any of the really interesting questions, so I turned to philosophy. I’ve been searching for God ever since.”
Pettingill (Baker), a terraforming scientist, is the reluctant, uncertain member of the team, while Santen (Bratt) is the brash pilot with an ego that easily bullies Pettingill, leading to a tragic consequence. And Burchenal (Sizemore), a geneticist, believes only in the nature of man and the purity of science. In his mind, it’s man’s right to move through his surroundings, taking what he needs, what he wants, and manipulating life itself, right down to the cellular level.
Pettengill, Burchenal and Santen
The main character, Gallagher (Kilmer), a mechanical systems engineer nicknamed “the Space Janitor,” showcases the ingenuity of humans to survive against all odds. But my favorite character is Bowmen (Moss), the only woman in the group. As commander, she spends the better part of the film alone in orbit on a busted spaceship, problem-solving and keeping herself alive. She’s cool, calm and intelligent, capable enough to command the respect of her male peers—the ultimate female role model. And while there is a hint of romance between her and Gallagher, she certainly doesn’t let this define her.
One of my most favorite lines of all time is in this movie. After crash-landing on the surface of Mars, Gallagher and the others try to determine their location and heading. Burchenal states that it’s all about the math, to which Gallagher replies, “This is it. That moment they told us about in high school, where one day algebra would save our lives.”
I admire the men and women who are willing to risk their lives in such endeavors, and when Mars One launches the first brave souls in 2024, I’ll be right there, cheering them on, secretly grateful that my son remains behind to explore science right here on Earth. In the meantime, I’ve got great movies like Red Planet to vicariously experience space travel, and I’ve got “Rocket Man” by Elton John on repeat.




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