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How Red Planet Ended Val Kilmer's Acting Career

Val Kilmer's Hollywood tenure began in the mid-1980s in a film called "Top Secret!" by directors Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker. He took on the lead role of American rock star Nick Rivers, who travels overseas for a show but winds up at the heart of a sociopolitical conflict that holds the fate of Germany in its hands. His performance in this action-comedy didn't go unnoticed, and before he knew it, Kilmer was a prominent face in the likes of "Top Gun" and "Willow." However, this wasn't the peak of his career, as the most important years of his professional life — the 1990s — were yet to come.

By the time the '80s wrapped up, Val Kilmer was poised to become the biggest star in the entertainment industry. 1991 saw him transform into the music icon Jim Morrison for "The Doors," followed by an unforgettable portrayal of Doc Holliday in 1993's "Tombstone." The now-world famous actor didn't miss a beat as the decade reached its halfway point either, becoming the Dark Knight in 1995 for the late director Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever," working with legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in "Heat" that same year, and even testing his voice acting skills in 1998 as a part of the DreamWorks Animation classic, "The Prince of Egypt."

Sadly, the new millennium didn't treat Val Kilmer well, and his stock as an on-screen talent waned dramatically. For the most part, this misfortune can be traced back to an infamous 2000 sci-fi flop known as "Red Planet."

Red Planet did irreversible harm to Val Kilmer's leading man status

"Red Planet" takes place in the year 2056 where Earth is on the verge of environmental collapse due to excessive pollution and overpopulation. To combat this crisis, expeditions to Mars have begun the terraforming process so that humanity can soon live on the famously uninhabitable planet. Inexplicably, their otherwise successful efforts fail, prompting an interdisciplinary team of astronauts to investigate, but things quickly go South in the worst way. By the end, it's left up to engineer Robby Gallagher (Kilmer) and commander Kate Bowen (Carrie-Anne Moss) to unravel the mystery and evade certain death at the hands of their extraterrestrial foes.

To this day, "Red Planet" is the only directorial effort from Antony Hoffman and, aside from its stunning visuals, is still regarded as a colossal failure. As far as viewer reception goes, its 14% rotten critical score on Rotten Tomatoes is accompanied by a consensus that claims it "suffers from a lack of energy and interesting characters." General moviegoers weren't much more forgiving, as evidenced by the still unimpressive 24% audience score, but what about its financial record? Well, it only made roughly $33.5 million on an $80 million budget, landing it firmly in box office bomb territory.

The problem with the film's reception isn't just that it didn't get many positive reviews. When critics got their eyes on "Red Planet" in 2000, many of their reactions to the film were downright scathing.

Critics had harsh words for Red Planet

Despite being fleetingly dazzled by the visuals, most critics were left sorely unimpressed by "Red Planet." From the underdeveloped characters to the rote plot, few found much, if anything, to enjoy about the film.

"This particular crew is made up of some pretty good actors, but they don't do anything but punch buttons and explain why they're punching them," wrote Paul Tatara of CNN, who went on to add, "After a while, the lucky ones die." He also criticized the film for having "an absurd lack of tension," which he said resulted in characters who "are so stoic about their predicament, you'd think their car has broken down on the New Jersey Turnpike."

The BBC's Ben Falk also criticized the film's lack of emotional stakes, writing, "it would be more emotionally involving to watch a spin cycle on your washing machine." He noted that the cast "[struggles] to wring any kind of suspense out of the material" and even observed that Kilmer "is patently there for the dosh and craft services."

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor of Salon slammed the movie by writing, "'Red Planet' isn't particularly offensive, except in its total mediocrity." He went on to say, "But it's a thoroughly depressing experience because the film gives you nothing; because the film makes it blatant that we've reached the state where the most extraordinary computer-generated effects can be used at the service of utter banality ... 'Red Planet' gives no indication of what a movie, even at its most basic level, can be." Ouch.

And as if thoroughly rotten reviews weren't bad enough, "Red Planet" was also marked by off-camera conflict between Kilmer and one of his co-stars.

Tensions flared between Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore on the set of Red Planet

Unfortunately for "Red Planet," the movie's bad reviews aren't the only stain on its legacy. The film's production is remembered for its tumultuous set thanks to Tom Sizemore's account of a confrontation he had with Kilmer while filming.

Sizemore recalled the rocky working relationship, which reportedly began with a conflict over production shelling out money for Sizemore to have his elliptical machine delivered to set, in his memoir "By Some Miracle I Made It Out of There" (via New York Daily News). Allegedly, the verbal tension between the two actors eventually boiled over into physical violence, which included Sizemore throwing an exercise weight at Kilmer and eventually punching him in the chest (he was asked by a producer to not hit Kilmer in the face). On-set conflicts aren't exactly rare in Hollywood. However, Sizemore's account combined with the film's terrible reception helps to illustrate what a disaster "Red Planet" really was.

To put it lightly, Kilmer's leading man status deteriorated post-"Red Planet," and his proceeding years would be earmarked by limited releases and direct-to-video projects. There have been a few diamonds in the rough, such as 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and the upcoming sequel "Top Gun: Maverick," but the stigma of "Red Planet" coupled with his mid-2010s throat cancer diagnosis put a major damper on his already dwindling big-screen presence. Thankfully, as of this writing, Val Kilmer is cancer-free and looking forward to the premiere of the 2021 biographical documentary "Val" — putting his best foot forward and living life to the fullest.