Red Planet goes limp on its way to Mars. Requiem for a Dream punishes its viewers on its way to junkie hell.
Directed by Antony Hoffman
Requiem for a Dream
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
In the old days, astronauts flew on rocket ships with visible strings and were hailed on the moon or Mars (the same California canyon) by green-skinned women in minidresses speaking colloquial American English. Space pictures have gotten more realistic in the subsequent half-century, but they still haven't learned to compensate for the absence of green-skinned women in minidresses. They lack outlandishness. Take the dull-witted Red Planet. In a clunky voice-over, Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Anne Moss, of The Matrix) explains that Earth in the middle of the 21st century is an environmental disaster, so scientists have bombarded Mars with algae-bearing probes in the hope of generating oxygen. Everything was hunky-dory until the algae suddenly vanished; now, she and five fellas (nonchalant "space janitor" Val Kilmer, egghead Tom Sizemore, macho Benjamin Bratt, earnestly theological Terence Stamp, and dweebish Simon Baker) must journey millions of miles to find out where it went. Oh, boy: Algae Quest.
You really have to like space-mission flicks to stay with Red Planet, but most of us junk aficionados do: We were weaned on them in the wee hours on black-and-white TV sets. Even the most maladroit genre specimens tend to have a pleasant, narcotizing effect—the upshot of zero-gravity maneuvers, stars drifting slowly by the windows, and a steady, ambient drone. Lackluster acting can actually help. In this film, there's a humdrum build-up to the crew's arrival on Mars, but once they're in sight of the planet and they start to enthuse about fresh tomatoes for dinner in their already-landed, prefab habitat, you know it's the cue for a major malfunction. (When was the last time you saw astronauts in a sci-fi movie eating tomatoes? It will never happen.) What follows is a nifty double climax in which Bowman has to put out a fire on the mother ship while the five guys crash-land on the surface and then bounce off a mighty precipice in what looks like a giant beach ball.
So far, so cool. This is when you'd normally bring on the green women or effete wizards or giant spiders. But after the lack-of-oxygen question gets settled (I'm not really spoiling anything: If everyone on the surface drops dead when the air runs out, the movie is over), the principal antagonist turns out to be the robot that the crew brought with them from Earth in the first place. She's a nasty little creation called AMEE (pronounced like the first name of an ex-girlfriend of mine), who alternately rolls over submissively or leaps into scarily warlike postures (also, come to think of it, like an ex-girlfriend of mine). To my taste, AMEE looks too much like a stop-motion piece of computer animation, but the bigger problem is that she seems to go nuts for no reason other than that she sensed a void in the narrative. So AMEE turns into a cunning terminator with a taste for swooping down on crew members, mangling them, and beaming the image to the others like a show-offy TV-commercial director.
Which is actually the background of director Antony Hoffman. He's tops at lighting and production design (the exteriors, filmed in the Jordanian desert and the Australian outback, are ominously vast and barren), but he can't seem to shoot a simple conversation, and his editing is abrupt. Say what you will about the softheaded climax of Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000), it had stately, David Lean-like tempos and more lyricism than any space opera this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Red Planet won't be hissed at the way De Palma's movie was—on its own crappy terms, it delivers, but after two hours of spurious cliffhangers and characters behaving with no dramatic logic, you'll wonder if that algae ended up in the producers' heads.
Speaking of algae, when Moss reached for various toggles in her stretchy T-shirt, the guy sitting next to me whispered, "Thank you." OK, I'm lying, that was me. She spends the whole picture on the ship, but this sharp and darkly self-contained actress is more fun to watch than anything on the red planet. It's too bad even she can't pierce Val Kilmer's narcissism. Has Kilmer's encounter with Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) left him with a raging case of Brandoitis? It's not just that he's thicker—that's not a problem in his spacesuit. It's his yellow buzz cut and toothy smirk and air of stoned superiority. Kilmer is an amusing fellow, but he has reached the slumming Brando stage without ever having passed through the brilliant Brando stage.
I put off seeing Requiem for a Dream because, frankly, junkie pictures give me the creeps (I have this thing about needles going into veins) and because I've always found Hubert Selby Jr.'s worst-case scenarios to be so determinedly punishing that they border on lefty porn. But at least two-thirds of this Darren Aronofsky adaptation (co-written with Selby) is a real shot in the arm. In his first film, Pi (1998), Aronofsky had a genius for taking an abstract idea—his protagonist's obsession with the irrational number he thinks goes to the root of all existence—and putting the metaphors right there in the filmmaking, in furious montages and flurries of talismanic signs. It's understandable that a director with an instinct for injecting his hallucinatory images into your bloodstream would want to tackle a melodrama of addiction. It's also understandable that that he wouldn't know when to let up.
The good stuff first. Aronofsky has devised Requiem as a progression of trip motifs—jumpy, slow- and fast-motion, alternately slurry and brusque. The syntax is exhilarating. He's not standing outside the drug experience, moralizing. He's simulating it, pulling you in so that you know in your guts why humans prefer this mode of being over the flatness of the real world: The vision is of a whole class of people festering in its own (capitalism-induced) fantasies. The hophead Brooklyn protagonist (an alarmingly skinny Jared Leto), his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), and his buddy (Marlon Wayans) long for more than a regular high—rendered in recurrent montages of flaming matches, liquefying crystals, and expanding pupils. They also want to build a business out of the drug—and as much as their habit, it's their dream of entrepreneurship that sends them on a downward spiral.
The addicts aren't just the druggy underclass. They're also people like the boy's addled Brighton Beach mother (Ellen Burstyn), who sits all day in front of her rabbit-eared TV set watching a combination game-show/infomercial/capitalist-evangelical pageant called Juice. When a mysterious telemarketer calls to say that she has been chosen as a potential game-show contestant, her fantasy escalates from a pathetic time-soaker-upper into an obsession with going back in time, recovering her youth, losing 50 pounds to fit into an old (and garish) red dress. Next stop: amphetamine dementia.
In the case of Requiem for a Dream, Selby's imprisoning worldview is an apt one: He makes the case that we're a culture of addicts, and nothing eliminates options in life like addiction. The question is: How can you make the inevitable crash-and-burn enlightening instead of just predictably unpleasant? Drugstore Cowboy (1989) manages, thanks to its outlaw-gang structure (it was Bonnie and Clyde with needles) and tragic final irony: When its protagonist cleans up, he suddenly becomes more vulnerable. Aronofsky and Selby have nothing so profound up their sleeves, and the movie becomes increasingly unwatchable—not just bleak but punishing, as if the director wants to fry your circuits along with his characters'. "How much worse can it get?" you ask. You have no idea.
I'm not being facetious when I urge you to see three-quarters of Requiem for a Dream for its astonishing technique and the acting of Leto and Burstyn and (especially) Connelly. Stay for an hour and a half and skip out when the title reads, "Winter." Really, you won't miss anything important. If you want to know what happens, e-mail me and I'll fill you in on the gory details. Even bad trips don't have to be that bad.