Mission to Mars (2000)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Cast: Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Tim Robbins, Jerry O'Connell, Peter Outerbridge, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Kavan Smith, Elise Neal, Kim Delaney.
2000 112 minutes
Rated: (for violence and mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 11, 2000.
Like so many recent films by Brian De Palma, "Mission to Mars" clearly holds promise, but eventually throws it away for a more conventional and disheartening approach to the material he is working with. Unlike in his early career, when he made several stunning motion picture achievements, such as 1976's "Carrie," 1980's "Dressed to Kill," and 1981's "Blow Out," lately De Palma has been on autopilot, developing a haphazard adaptation of an acclaimed novel (1990's "Bonfire of the Vanities"); an idiotic, disposable serial killer movie (1992's "Raising Cain"); and a stylistically impressive, but substantially empty-headed thriller (1998's "Snake Eyes"). Even his 1996 box-office hit, "Mission: Impossible," was a film that left audiences scratching their heads as to what exactly it was about. With "Mission to Mars," De Palma has entered, for the first time, into blatant hack territory, as he dwells too often on melodramatic situations involving characters we don't care about, and goes right over the deep end with a conclusion that caused me to feel sticky afterwards--from all the cheese, that is.
Aiming a little higher in the outer space genre, as there are no evil aliens or slimy space creatures to be found, "Mission to Mars" begins at a picnic on Earth for the families of NASA workers who are about to launch up into the great big, blue sky. While it is appreciated that screenwriters Jim Thomas, John Thomas, and Graham Yost opted to show the astronomers' family life before the space mission takes off, it tuns out to (1) be pointless filler, since the other family members are never seen or heard from again following the fifteen minute prologue, and (2) feature terribly arbitrary dialogue that even I wouldn't have the guts to write down on paper.
Switch forward 13 months, a 4-person crew sent to Mars to investigate an anomaly turns tragic when a violent funnel arises and eats all but one: Luke Graham (Don Cheadle). Sending an SOS to a space station millions of miles away, several of the head passengers turn out to be friends with Luke, including space cowboy Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), still grieving over the untimely death of his wife (Kim Delaney, shown fleetingly in flashbacks); the spousal team of Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen); and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell), whom we learn nothing about so I have nothing to say concerning him. Problems ensue on their mission to Mars, until they finally make it to the red planet, where it becomes increasingly evident that there is, in fact, other intelligent life in the universe.
For a movie that is supposed to be an adventure, never before have I seen a big-budget picture so absolutely laid back in its style. Whenever something troublesome comes up, the film remains slow-moving, as if the lack of gravity has also taken away the oxygen in the characters' brains. Even in certain life-or-death situations, they are constantly calm and collect, and De Palma takes great pains in creating tension and suspense (which he occasionally does achieve) without any action at all (save for the awe-inspiring funnel sequence at the 20-minute mark, which, sorry to say, folks, is as exciting as this film ever gets).
For the opening half, "Mission to Mars" was a relatively enjoyable, if problematic, motion picture. Even if they were underwritten, I liked some of the characters, particularly husband-and-wife Woody and Terri, whom Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen successfully project the feeling that they are in love with each other. There are also three great scenes--the aforementioned funnel death setpiece; one in which there is a leak somewhere in their spacecraft, causing them to slowly lose oxygen; and another in which a key character accidentally overshoots their aim outside the ship, causing him/her to hurl out into space to the point of no return.
'Abysmal' is the best adjective to describe the latter half of "Mission to Mars." In place of the previous tautness is a treacly encounter with an extraterrestrial (who looks about as realistic as Wiley Coyote), followed by a sap-inducing vomit bag of a finale that, if the movie hasn't lost you before this, will most certainly run right off the tracks for you here. Amidst it all is the eventual answer to the origin of life on Earth, which, I guess, is passable, but certainly nothing earthshakingly original or profound.
Special mention should go to Ennio Morricone's laughably bad score which, at times, is so overwhelmingly soap opera-ish within scenes that aren't even dramatic that it elicited at least a couple laughs from me throughout. The organ music (yes, you heard that right) is a little better, and certainly the most unconventional element of the film, but it still seems out of place.
Since some of the actors are big talents, even when they are simply cashing paychecks (as they are doing in "Mission to Mars") they still equip themselves admirably. What isn't admirable is their choice to make this picture at all, which holds nothing in the way of inventiveness (it's all been seen before, in one way or the other, in such superior films as 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), and everything in the way of corniness. "Mission to Mars" isn't exactly a dull experience, but it is a monotonous one, because the capabilities it so obviously holds is put to zero good use.
©2000 by Dustin Putman