Mission to Mars (2000) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for some language
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Tim Robbins, Jerry O'Connell, Connie Nielsen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Kim Delaney (cameo)
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost
Review published February 8, 2007
When disaster strikes the first manned crew to Mars in 2020, a rescue team is sent in to investigate. However, complications arise which jeopardize the mission, not the least of which is the appearance of an artificial construct that might be alien in origin on the surface of Mars. Their mission is to retrieve any possible survivors, but the space flight has its share of perils, and now no one may make it back alive -- at least they won't without dealing with what's on Mars first.
You have to admire director Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes, The Untouchables) and the various screenwriters for trying their hardest to pull out all stops and dazzle us. It's pretty obvious from the get-go that they felt they were going to make one of the greatest space epics in the history of science fiction cinema. Unfortunately for all involved, and especially to the viewer, it falls substantially short of the mark. That's not to say it's bad -- well, ok, parts of it are very bad -- but it still could have been a serviceable and intriguing tale to maintain your interest even if it never evokes any of the awe it seeks so desperately to inspire. It fails to do even that.
Part of the problem with the film comes from the casting. All of the actors in the film have proven themselves as fine actors in previous films, so there's no question that it's a talented group. However, it's a group of fine actors stuck in parts that aren't playing to their strengths, further compounded by the fact that there really isn't any depth or complexity to any of the roles. Instead of the world's elite space pioneers, this feels more like a glamour show, with the characters always exhibiting lots of cute smiles and perky charm. This poor character build up and a serious neglect of realism leads us to not care one way or the other if any of them live or die. Despite being holed up in a space station for many months, the crew remain well-groomed and tanned, with make-up and stylish clothing for much of the trip. I think De Palma was set on casting anyone with dimples working in Hollywood today, and to hell with what the characterizations might dictate.
With miscast actors and relatively little in the way of character development, the only thing left to commend Mission to Mars for are some impressive special effects and some interesting ideas that, if handled well, should have been mind-blowing. Sadly, the film lacks the depth in screenwriting to support them. In its place is a static look and feel to most scenes, with De Palma utilizing very few cuts, setting up his camera from a distance, or sometimes just letting it travel from character to character in one take. Potentially nifty if he can pull it off, but in this film, De Palma's masturbatory style only serves to distance us from the characters, literally and figuratively, and we never really feel that sense of inclusion. We never get to share in their awe, wonder, and despair, despite the cataclysmic events that eventually unfold.
For an action film, it moves too slowly. For a drama, it lacks depth. For a science fiction film, it lacks originality. Special effects can only get you so far, and while it certainly seems like the scenes containing the best of the effects could have been exciting, it's the in-between scenes that ultimately let them down. De Palma tries so hard to recreate the awe-inspiring dimensions of Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but most viewers will more likely think it's a lot closer to Barry Levinson's Sphere. That's not a good thing to be when you invest the serious chunk of change they must have to make it. De Palma might have made himself a nice career imitating the style of Hitchcock, but he's not nearly the visionary that Kubrick was.
Of course, all might be forgiven if, at the end of our journey, we are treated to a potentially fascinating payoff. Alas, the ending proves to be the worst part of an already erratic film, and it ultimately sinks it. I'll try to avoid spoilers here by just saying that it's about as hokey, ridiculous, and oddly uninteresting as any ending I could probably imagine, given the fact that it touches on such fascinating things as the origin of life on Earth and the definitive answer to other life existing in the universe. When you can't make these eternally-perplexing concepts fascinating, you have a serious problem with your movie.
Mission to Mars, for all of its substantial flaws, is almost an interesting enough film to give a mild recommendation for hardcore sci-fi junkies, but considering what the filmmakers were aiming for, this is one mission that is far from accomplished for anyone else.
©2000, 2007 Vince Leo