movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


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Mission to Mars

The trailer for Mission to Mars presents an array of stunning images built around an enigmatic search for the origins of life on Earth. The trailer’s echoes of Kubrick’s science-fiction classic 2001 may lure movie-goers into seats--but it also assures their disappointment. Instead of a stunning, original film, Mission to Mars is a cheesy, ponderous rip-off of a number of science-fiction films that best Mission to Mars not only by having done it first, but better.

The film opens with a friendly barbecue attended by the families of the upcoming missions: reminiscent of Apollo 13, except Tom Hanks and Kathleen Quinlan were much more interesting as hosts and a couple than Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen as astronaut couple Woody Blake and Terri Fisher. The only things that we ever learn about their marriage is that he finds it amusing that he outranks her on this mission; she wants him to learn to dance; and they like to make out.

The astronauts played by Don Cheadle and Gary Sinise have equally flat characters: Cheadle’s Luke Graham is reading Robinson Crusoe (which I guess is supposed to make it ironic that he becomes marooned) with his son; and Sinise’s Jim McConnell is moody because his astronaut wife Maggie (Kim Delaney), with whom he was supposed to lead the first mission to Mars, died a lingering death. Though this film attempts to portray these female astronauts and wives as equals to their husbands, it fails miserably, casting actresses of lesser film stature than even the fifth leading male character, and giving them even flatter characters and dialogue than their male colleagues. Terri’s expertise as an astronaut or a scientist is never displayed, with her value to the male team rarely moving beyond that of helpmate. The deceased Maggie does not even appear in real flashbacks: Jim plays a video from a party where the couple is being toasted and clips from their life are being shown. This video-within-a-video-within-the-film presents Maggie only through superficial, posed moments, rather than providing any insight or poignancy to her husband’s loss.

There have been many successful science fiction or action films that have similarly flat characters and dialogue that have still worked because of the tight action, the charisma of their stars, and the overall sure-hand of the director. Brian De Palma instead gives too much screen time and weight to his stars’ musings, emphasizing their personal moments with a melodramatic score reminiscent of ‘60s television dramas. Robbins, Cheadle, and Sinise give the least interesting performances of their careers, with their strong screen presences making minimal impact in this film.

By the time Luke’s crew is found on Mars, it is almost anticlimactic, as if the personal dramas at the barbecue were of more consequence than this first landing. The disaster on Mars that strands and kills crew members is dramatic, mysterious, and breath-taking--but then it takes more than an hour for the rescue mission to arrive, as the second mission experiences so many mini-disasters that the wondrous Mars sequence loses its power. Not only are there too many crises, but they all take too much time, without contributing to character development nor to the drama on Mars.

When the friends are reunited on Mars, the castaway’s experience is quickly brushed away to focus on the mystery of the disaster. For all the production’s focus on Mars--and the rush to beat Red Planet to theaters--the filmmakers seem to have forgotten that this planet is interesting new ground, and aside from a stone monument, the film finds nothing of interest on Mars. On the official Web site, De Palma talks about the opportunity to shoot a planet "nobody’s ever seen before" (Total Recall?) and to "avoid all the cliches of science fiction movies."

Instead the audience is given material that feels too familiar: aliens communicating through a repeating soundwave that can be decoded into numbers (Contact); a stone monument in a desert that is actually a portal (Stargate); answering aliens through sound, with a newly single man then choosing to go to their world (Close Encounters); Gary Sinise as an astronaut scrubbed from a mission for suspected health reasons who then becomes key to getting his friends home (Apollo 13); a ponderously disastrous voyage that culminates with an explanation from an alien in a cavernous space (Star Trek I); and then all the echoes of 2001 (Earth’s evolution, spinning spaceship, bright white room, etc.), which only serve to point out the superficiality of Mission to Mars. (As the astronaut goes to meet the unknown and relives memories of the past, clips from earlier in the film only remind the audience of the emptiness of those moments.) These astronauts, who are characterized as huge science fiction buffs, seem to be totally unaware of any of their mission’s similarities to factual or fictional happenings. This is most striking in the revelation of the stone monument, that any science fiction buff would recognize as similar to an unexplained surface feature of Mars captured by a satellite photograph.

The Mars set itself is stunning. It made me wish the two missions had actually spent time exploring the planet.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]