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Mission to Mars

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 17 March 2000

Directed by Brian de Palma

Starring Gary Sinise, 
Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, 
Jerry O'Connell, Kim Delaney, 
Tim Robbins, and Armin Mueller-Stahl

Written by Jim & John Thomas
 and Graham Yost

Mission to Mars is the film 2001 would have been, had it been made in today's studio system. However, since I know that quote will probably be taken out of context and bandied about as though it were a rave review, I must qualify my words: while the visuals in Mission to Mars are undeniably gorgeous and often recall Kubrick's masterpiece, MtM is far too "safe" for its own good. MtM feels like a movie heavily influenced by market analysis and audience test screenings: any time the story hints at anything even remotely cerebral, a bit of crowd-pleasing formula is quickly thrown on the screen, rather like scraps of meat tossed to a hungry dog. Unfortunately, these descents into mediocrity culminate in one of the most laughable endings in recent memory (worse even than Snake Eyes, another cinematic offering from director Brian de Palma). But the real tragedy is the fact that there's a pretty good movie hidden deep inside this mess, trying to break out of its cocoon. It's a shame that the many fine moments contained herein are repeatedly diluted by ho-hum storytelling.

Gary Sinise, who magically regrew his legs after appearing in Forrest Gump, stars as Jim McConnell, an astronaut who gave up a chance to lead the first manned mission to Mars in order to take care of his dying wife. When disaster strikes the replacement crew, however, McConnell soon finds himself involved in a rescue operation. Along the way, there will be plenty of opportunities for excitement, adventure, and wonder -- most of which will be cheerfully ignored by the film. (You'd think mankind's first steps onto a new planet might be a historic occasion. No one cares.)

Indeed, "no one cares" should be the film's tagline: not much care has gone into anything, particularly story construction. Although the special effects are well done, the integration of these shots with the live-action footage is laughable. The problem is not so much the joining of these scenes as the lack of emotion (or even interest!) the actors display to the events unfurling all around them. For example (spoiler warning!), the crew at one point witnesses a Martian sandstorm -- one with a severe attitude problem. How do our steadfast heroes react? By staring. Not with interest. Not with worry. They just... stare. Later, in the stupifyingly silly finale, our heroes make history when they come face-to-CGI-face with an alien. The humans glance at the creature with mild curiosity, then turn their attention back to the other items in the room. Did de Palma forget to tell his actors that an alien was going to be inserted into the footage later? Surely first contact with an intergalactic species calls for something more than an utter lack of interest. I guess NASA's training program includes the complete purging of all emotion from the body.

De Palma's desire to make a modern 2001 is very evident, and he's to be commended for coming as close to the mark as he did. There are moments in Mission to Mars which are wonderful, especially those in which Gary Sinise is allowed to demonstrate his remarkable acting range (the scenes involving his late wife are heartbreakingly tender), and another sequence -- involving a failed attempt to rescue a stranded astronaut -- also surprised me by deviating from cliche' in almost every possible way. Great stuff! Had de Palma insisted that screenwriters Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost insert more "human" moments like these into the screenplay, we might have ended up with a genuine sci-fi classic.

But, like Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars reveals that de Palma is a far better instigator of conflict than a resolver. The last twenty minutes of the film are almost painful, and completely shatter the emotional focus that the story has tried so hard to build. Mission to Mars is a journey that should have been aborted on the launch pad.

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