Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

Suggested reading:

Blue Mars (sci fi novel) (1997), Kim Stanley Robinson

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must (1997), Robert Zubrin

Islands in the Sky: Bold New Ideas for Colonizing Space (1996), Stanley Schmidt (Editor)

In Brian De Palma’s puzzling new space opera Mission to Mars, astronauts arrive on the red planet only to find that Disney has already been there and opened an EPCOT Center. De Palma’s opus begins with the mysteries of the universe beckoning, and ends with a mundane science lecture conducted in a cut-rate planetarium. The journey that brings us there is punctuated with hypnotic suspense sequences, would-be lyrical interludes, computer effects ranging from the eye-popping to the laughable, and some of the worst performances ever given by talented actors. To give De Palma his due, Mission to Mars is not the perfunctory piece of action-packed hackwork one might have expected from the previews. It’s more peculiar than awful – though at times, it is awful indeed.

The movie opens at a backyard barbecue 20 years in the future, where people drink beer from cardboard cartons and drive boxy, uncomfortable-looking cars. Three of the revelers are astronauts – Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), who’s leaving for Mars in the morning, Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), who will follow a few months later, and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), who isn’t going at all, because his wife has died and he can’t bring himself to do it without her. Shortly after Luke and his team land on the fourth rock from the sun, a mountain turns into a freakish whirlpool of swirling rocks, killing most of the crew and unveiling an enormous structure shaped like a human face. Woody’s mission now becomes one of rescue, and Jim is enlisted into the cause.

It’s not surprising that Mission to Mars borrows heavily from the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey (including the famous rotating centrifuge, which De Palma uses to stage a weightless dance number). It’s a little more disturbing to realize that the script by Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost unintentionally replicates the banal dialogue and one-dimensional characters of Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi spectacle. Kubrick, of course, made thematic hay of these seeming debits, contrasting emotionally sterile human characters with a touchy-feely computer. No such luck here – De Palma is simply stuck with a third-rate screenplay in desperate need of a rewrite.

Of course, that’s nothing new for De Palma, who made his reputation with Hitchcockian thrillers in the 1970’s and went on to direct Bonfire of the Vanities and, most recently, Snake Eyes. (Has any other major filmmaker acquired such an exalted reputation working with such consistently atrocious material?) But even setting the writing aside, his directorial instincts here misfire more often than they ignite. On the plus side, De Palma’s zero gravity camera moves are graceful and fluid, and he can still cut together intense, haunting nail-biters, notably an extended sequence in which Tim Robbins leaves the ship to plug a leak in the hull (a sequence marred by Ennio Morricone’s baffling musical accompaniment, an organ-based piece that sounds like the Phantom of the Opera gone techno). A few scattered images, such as a remote controlled robot skittering across the baked red surface of the planet, come close to achieving visual poetry.

The director’s unique brand of operatic emotionalism, however, is a deadly match for this material. Numerous scenes of Gary Sinise moping about his dead wife and watching home videos of their time together quickly become a drag. When a crew member is cut loose and seems destined to drift off into space, the moment stretches past tension and horror and deep into embarrassing melodrama. Though his character has all the depth of a Buck Rogers comic strip, Robbins still doesn’t seem up to the task. And if Don Cheadle lives to be 100, this will always be his worst performance. He doesn’t give a single convincing line reading, something that would have seemed impossible for such a natural.

Mission to Mars doesn’t fall apart completely until the last few minutes, but when it falls, it falls hard. The finale’s "big ideas" about life, the universe and everything are given such a grandiose presentation and hammered home with such insulting redundancy and sappiness (not to mention CGI effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a video arcade), the only appropriate response is laughter. The movie ends up as little more than a half-baked head trip from a director who’s spent too many years lost in space.

Scott Von Doviak

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