Mission to Mars
Screenplay : Jim Thomas & John Thomas and Graham Yost
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Gary Sinise (Jim McConnell), Tim Robbins (Woody Blake), Don Cheadle (Luke Graham), Connie Nielsen (Terri Fisher), Jerry O'Connel (Phil Ohlmyer)
When Pauline Kael wrote her ecstatic, glowing reviews of Brian De Palma's films in the 1970s and early 1980s, she always focused on De Palma's twisted sense of humor as both his greatest asset as a director and the reason why he was savaged by so many other critics. For Kael, all of De Palma's macabre thrillers were, at their hearts, comedies. She described "Carrie" (1976) as "a perverse mixture of comedy and horror and tension"; "The Fury" (1978) was an "inferno comedy"; and "Dressed to Kill" (1980), perhaps his most notorious concoction, was "a suspense comedy about sex and fear."
I have always thought that Kael was dead-on in her assessments of why De Palma's early films are so striking and (to some squeamish souls) so atrociously off-putting. And now, after seeing his most recent effort, the would-be science fiction epic "Mission to Mars," I realize that De Palma has finally given up every last vestige of what once made him a great, innovative American director.
Yes, "Mission to Mars" has some of the fantastic, sweeping crane shots for which De Palma has become known. There are lyrical moments of strange beauty on the face of the red planet, and at least one moment of coldly ironic horror when an attempted rescue fails by mere inches, unexpectedly sending a major character to his death. But, this was the one isolated moment of cackling perversity in the whole film. The rest is done with a completely straight face and an utter lack of irony. And, as a result, the whole film borders on the nether-edges of the worst kind of inadvertent camp.
De Palma's career has been lurching radically in the last few years. He made his major comeback after a string of flops in the late 1980s by going completely Hollywood with 1995's "Mission: Impossible," then returned (with limited success) to his more Hitchcockian roots with the mystery-thriller "Snake Eyes" (1998). Maybe it was because "Snake Eyes" was both a critical and a commercial letdown that he has felt the need to return to fully Hollywoodized terrain, which is exactly what "Mission to Mars" is. Full of excruciatingly lame dialogue and borrowing bits and pieces from every conceivable sci-fi predecessor, from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) to James Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989), "Mission to Mars" is a hodepodge film that feels overlong and overindulgent in the worst possible ways.
The film takes place in 2020, and the plot actually concerns two missions to Mars. The initial mission is the first manned flight to Mars, and there is a strange disaster on the red planet that leaves only one survivor, Luke Graham (Don Cheadle). A rescue mission is quickly assembled, led by Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise). McConnell was actually the brainchild behind the design of the first mission, but he was not allowed to go because of his shaken condition after the recent death of his wife, who was also his partner and co-designer (this is explained in a long monologue by Luke that is dialogue-as-plot-explication at its absolute worst). McConnell's team of astronauts includes another husband-and-wife team, Woody (Tim Robbins) and Terri (Connie Nielsen), as well as a young pilot named Phil (Jerry O'Connell).
The rescue mission turns out to be as disastrous as the initial mission, as the rescue team's ship is pelted with a rain of small meteors, causing punctures in the hull and ultimately causing the destruction of the ship. The majority of the team makes it the surface of the planet in order to rescue Luke, and it is here that the film makes its true purpose known.
While on Mars, the human astronauts make some astounding discoveries that lead them to knowledge about alien beings and the origins of life on Earth. It is in these final moments that De Palma really lets go. With Ennio Morricone's overwrought score swelling to overwhelming proportions, we are introduced to a rather generic-looking, badly animated female alien who holds all the answers (the rest of the special effects in the film are quite astounding, which makes one wonder why, at the climax of the film, the FX quality takes a complete nosedive).
More than 24 hours after seeing "Mission to Mars," I am still not entirely sure what to make of it. The surface is so plain, so unadorned, and so (God help me) cheesy at times, that part of me wants to assume that De Palma is doing something under the surface that is more twisted and subversive. Yet, there is so little to grab on to in order to support that reading, that I am left with the tentative conclusion that "Mission to Mars" is meant to be read straight.
It is a science fiction epic that wants nothing less than to extend itself into the farthest reaches of the galaxy in order to create a myth of the origins of human life. There is certainly something to be said for its aspirations, and in this sense it might by compared to Kubrick's project in "2001." Yet, Kubrick's film was much deeper and, in many ways, more sinister, while De Palma's film plays more like an old-fashioned space opera with a tacked-on ending of pseudo-profundity.
And, unfortunately, there is not a trace of comedy to be found (not even Kael's lavish rhetorical gymnastics could make a convincing case). Perhaps the ultimate problem with "Mission to Mars," which was heavily advertised as "A Brian De Palma Film," is that, when it comes down to it, anyone could have directed it.
©2000 James Kendrick