Mission To Mars (2000)

D: Brian De Palma
S: Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Tim Robbins

Well mounted but imaginatively impoverished science fiction film from Brian De Palma (Mission Impossible, Snake Eyes). The first manned mission to Mars encounters mysterious problems which quickly send the second one along to rescue them. There are some vague snatches of plot and characterisation worked in, but essentially this premise represents another opportunity for De Palma and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum to indulge themselves. Zero gravity dancing, scenes of astronauts walking in the rotating anti-grav section of the spacecraft, the angry red landscape of Mars, a giant, malevolent sandstorm, the gleaming interior of an enigmatic artifact; these and more of the like constitute most of the (visual) pleasures provided by De Palma's episodic first foray into the genre. Unfortunately, unlike his take on the gangster film, The Untouchables, and his countless straight and parodic thrillers, he fails to take advantage of generic expectation and turn the formula on itself. Instead, the routine dimensions of this astronauts-in-jeopardy-encounter-strange-forces-from-beyond tale eventually outweigh and overwhelm its visual splendour and leave De Palma with nothing to show for the expenditure of time and energy which it required.

Thematically, the film is a variant on material already apotheosised by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a slight human wrinkle also already thoroughly worked over and elevated (fairly literally) to the level of the Gods by Robert Zemeckis in Contact. The narrative centre of the film revolves around broken soul Gary Sinise (re)discovering his sense of place following the death of his wife through this rescue mission which, without wishing to spoil the plot, brings him into contact with a world beyond not only his own, but that of humankind itself. It takes a very long time to get there, however, and most of the film is actually taken up with the details of the astronauts' trip, making it more akin to Apollo 13 than Armageddon, with all the attendant emotional banality but little of the comic book action which younger viewers might expect.

The story is loosely assembled around crisis-resolution scenes which invent situations with no particular narrative or emotional significance other than that they concern the basic necessity to survive. Though this type of scenario was interesting enough in Apollo 13 given its documentary dimension, it isn't enough for a work of speculative science fiction, especially when is 'deeper' content then seems to come as an afterthought which provides narrative closure to a series of set pieces. Its lack of invention shows quickly and becomes more annoying as it progresses, until its finale more or less falls flat following multiple climaxes, none of which are particularly involving.

The cast are game enough, with Don Cheadle (Out of Sight, Bulworth) acquitting himself well as the leader of the first expedition who faces more than just inner demons, and Tim Robbins lording it up as a character whose fate is predetermined from the moment he is introduced in the credits with "and". Sinise is fine in the role which comes to be the most important, but is not necessarily all that interesting from the outset. Essentially though, the actors are moving props which De Palma places strategically relative to the elaborate set designs so that he and Burum can move the camera around them and make maximum use of the widescreen frame. This they do with typical stylish self-indulgence, and as the script throws up the usual mixture of crisis points and one-liners, there is not a lot to sustain the attention of more attentive viewers.

There is a great deal of craft in the handling of these scenes, and on the whole the relatively authentic feeling of the technological near future resonates with an adult audience more than the outlandish fantasies of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. But there is a definite absence of adult drama and thus, lacking the simple entertainment and excitement of more conventional sci-fi flicks which would please teen or preteen viewers, Mission to Mars finds itself without an audience and with little originality or even a sense of authorial voice to keep it afloat without one. This is a film without moral or social purpose which retreads familiar material without apology (or evident reason). It is well made, stylishly photographed, and generally sincere enough to avoid being smug, but these are insufficient grounds upon which to base a recommendation for any but De Palma devotees and curious genre fans with a high threshold for cliche.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.