Monday, August 11, 2014

Mission to Mars (2000)

Director: Brian De Palma                                Writer: Jim Thomas & Graham Yost
Film Score: Ennio Morricone                           Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Starring: Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle and Connie Nielsen

Attempting to imagine what extra-terrestrial life is like in films has been a futile exercise over the last fifty years. Either the idea is so abstract as to be meaningless, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Abyss, or they are the clichéd skinny aliens with big eyes and long fingers, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Cocoon. But Mission to Mars had its work cut out for it in more than that context. For one thing, Brian De Palma is not a good director. He is derivative and unimaginative, whether he’s copying from others or himself. On top of that the film was saddled with a hackneyed script by Graham Yost--who has done some nice work on HBO miniseries--and the Thomas Brothers--who have essentially made a living off of the Predator franchise. Finally, throw in an incredibly uninspired film score by Ennio Morrione and TV actors Jerry O’Connell and Kim Delaney and you have a recipe for disaster. And yet, even with all of that, this is a very watchable film. Not a lot of time is wasted on space flight, getting right to the action, and the principal actors are all very good, despite the weak lines they have to spout.

The film begins, sigh, just like Apollo 13, with a backyard party for the astronauts who will be participating in the mission to Mars. Don Cheadle will be going all the way to the planet with his crew, while Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, and Connie Nielsen will be on the World Space Station with station chief Armin Mueller-Stahl monitoring the mission. The year is 2020 and for added drama Sinise should have been on the Mars flight with Cheadle but when his wife, Kim Delaney, died he took himself out of the rotation. Also, Robbins and Nielsen are a married couple who will be going on a later flight together. While Cheadle and his team are exploring the red planet, they see some footage from their video rover that looks as if it might be ice. Water on the planet would be a major discovery and so, absolutely inexplicably, all four of the astronauts leave their base camp and go out to see what it is. The shiny object is on top of a large hill and when they try to x-ray the hill to see what’s inside it creates a strange geological disturbance that seems to have a life of its own. It kills the other three astronauts and Cheadle is the only one who makes it back alive. He manages to get out a cryptic message to the space station before he loses all communication, and that jumpstarts his friends into launching a rescue mission to save him.

In all, the special effects are pretty good. De Palma did cut some corners by filming Robbins and Nielsen on roller skates to suggest weightlessness, and used “artificial gravity” to avoid having to deal with zero gravity in space, but it’s a small complaint. A bigger one is the makeup artist who worked on Gary Sinise. With his rouged lips and black eye liner he looks like a drag queen in close ups. The brunette wig that Connie Nielsen wears is also very phony looking. The spacecraft, both on the way to Mars and the space station, are well done and feel believable, but I wish that a real film actor could have been used to replace Jerry O’Connell. He’s terrible. And while the sequences on Mars are fairly impressive, the entire ending is a major disappointment. The film received poor reviews, which is understandable, but it is still a more entertaining film than Red Planet, which came out the same year. Though that’s not saying much. If you can accept the deficiencies and allow the film to unfold in its own way, the look and feel of the thing are tremendous and can offer an entertaining viewing experience. But if the execrable script is too much for you then absolutely nothing will compensate for it. For me, Mission to Mars is a flawed but watchable film that combines the claustrophobia of a film like Moon with the realism of Gravity and succeeds in its own small way.

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