Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

USA, 2000.  Rated PG.  113 minutes.

Cast: Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, Armin Mueller-Stahl (uncredited), Kim Delaney.
Writers: Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost (screenplay only), Lowell Cannon (story only)
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cinematographer: Stephen H. Burum
Producer: Tom Jacobson
Director: Brian De Palma

Grade: F Review by Carlo Cavagna

Go back thirteen years to Brian De Palma's The Untouchables and picture, if you will, the schmaltzy, broad "family" scenes in which a soft-lensed Patricia Clarkson, in her thankless wife role, gazes adoringly at Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness, her brow slightly furrowed with worry, as composer Ennio Morricone's warm horns swell. Picture also the scene in which the four heroes drink toasts to friendship as De Palma's camera circles their table over and over and over again. Now picture two hours of this in a science-fiction movie. The same director, same composer, and same endlessly circling, spinning cameras.

Why? That is the question that rises unbidden after slogging through two hours of Mission to Mars. Why did De Palma make this movie? He has nothing new to say, and no new way of saying it. But then again, De Palma, who elevated ripping off other filmmakers into an art form in The Untouchables and Scarface, has never had anything new to say. In The Untouchables (family scenes aside), De Palma stirred his pirated ideas into an appealing melange, but in Mission to Mars, which shamelessly plunders 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Abyss, Contact, and virtually every other serious science-fiction movie ever made, the disparate elements never gel. As for the cloying dialogue, it was clearly written by whoever writes the last five minutes of every sitcom you've ever seen.

Mission to Mars is a mission to nowhere, and De Palma takes the long route to get there. He burdens the film with a dull, protracted expository segment that establishes the apparently critical fact that all the characters are friends. Not just friends, actually... movie friends–warm, affectionate, fun-loving pranksters. You know, the kind who videotape each others' weddings and mug for the camera. It gets windy on MarsThe kind who, on the eve of leading a mission to another planet, will turn to each other and say, "It should have been you, Jim."

Anyway, Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) heads off to Mars with a group of accented scientists while Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) stays on Earth with Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen). McConnell had been first in line to lead the mission, but wouldn't you know it, he withdrew from the pool because he suffered a Tragic Loss. These darn things always happen at inconvenient times, but you know–with the absolute certainty that comes with having seen this sort of thing a hundred times before–that McConnell will be on the unavoidable rescue mission when something goes unavoidably awry on the Red Planet. And so he is.

The rescue operation is commanded by Blake, who displays his outstanding leadership qualities by being very tall, and displays his outstanding tender qualities by dancing with his wife Fisher in zero gravity. Astronaut Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell) is also along for the journey. It's an incredibly long journey, too. It may take six months to get to Mars, but it seems much, much longer. They don't arrive without incident, however. The ship is damaged, and, in a preposterously improbable sequence of events during which nobody seems particularly rushed even though seconds make the difference between life and death, one crew member is lost. Best guess: the four actors must've drawn straws, and the winner was allowed to opt out of the ludicrous, digitally rendered conclusion on Mars itself. During this conclusion, the surviving rescue team members figure out what happened to the first mission. Then they visit a planetarium, where they meet a cartoon. I am not making this up.

Why did talented actors like Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, and Armin Mueller-Stahl jump aboard this hot-air balloon in the first place? Mueller-Stahl, at least, who gives a dispirited performance in a supporting role, seems to have come to his senses sometime during post-production, as he removed his name from the credits. In contrast, the other actors bravely allowed their names to be associated with this stinker, and deserve Oscars™ for having recited all their lines with a straight face. As for the normally reliable Morricone--I have no idea what movie he was watching when he composed the music, but I'm pretty sure Mission to Mars wasn't it. Who can blame him for not wanting to?

Review © March 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.