A Brian De Palma movie from Disney rated PG ought to be a big red flag, right there. Following pairs of movies about Wyatt Earp, volcanoes, and giant meteors hitting the Earth, the Hollywood repetitive dream factory gives you the first, but not last, cinematic trip to a neighboring planet in “Mission to Mars”. From here, there’s nowhere to go (I hope) but up.
I’m glad these annual studio “event” pictures spread the wealth among deserving character actors. The real star of these films is usually the high concept and the special effects “money shot” that you can find at the end of the trailer. Too bad the last thing with which anyone concerns themselves is the script.
In the year 2020, the first manned mission to Mars is lead by Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle). These missions take a LONG time to get where they’re going, not unlike this movie. The mission is going great, UNTIL the astronauts detect some kind of artifact inside of a mountain. First-act complications ensue, and Graham soon finds himself shy one crew and an event wipes out most of his electronic equipment. Still, he’s about to send out one cryptic message back to mission control.
Back home, Graham’s buddies, Commanders Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise as the “edgy hero with nothing to lose”), move up the next planned mission so they can rescue their pal. Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be that easy.
Oh, where to start? Typically, while a good screenplay only requires a single author, this unimaginative, derivative dreck required at least four, even with the massive cribbing from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. On that note, here’s a memo to De Palma:
TO: Brian De Palma
Brian, while I can excuse a lot of self-indulgence from the director of “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Scarface”, I’ve got to take issue with one of your recurring habits. I can understand the need to recreate treasured scenes from your favorite movies on studio productions you take on just for the paycheck. Only film students will catch the Odessa steps sequence from “Battleship Potemkin” redone in “The Untouchables”. Unfortunately, just about anyone who commits eight bucks to “Mission to Mars” will have seen “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The Hitchcock “homages” were okay because employed those in mostly good films, but if you’re phoning in a job on a bad flick like this one, don’t remind the audience of a vastly better film they could be watching.
Oh, and f**k everyone else, “Snake Eyes” was great.
Now on to other problems. If you’re writing a screenplay that builds toward the discovery of an unnamable horror/ultimate object, the story is NOT about the “thing”, it’s about the journey there and how it tests the mettle of the main characters. Kubrick didn’t make “2001: That Big Black Thingee”, he made “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY”. “Citizen Kane” isn’t about Rosebud. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” isn’t particularly concerned with what the “Ark” really is. Anytime filmmakers place too much focus on the “thing”, they either can’t deliver or find a cop-out (“Contact”). The end result is an angry and disappointed audience. Whenever “Mission to Mars” isn’t near the artifact, it feels like it’s just killing time.
Speaking of killing time, this picture is practically the Anti-“Armageddon”. I don’t know whether it was due to budget limitations or what, but aside from maybe 20 people in the opening party scene, I don’t think there’s more than eight people (usually only four) in any shot for the rest of the movie. Big set pieces such as launch and landing sequences are nowhere to be found. The camera even keeps fairly still. While Michæl Bay overwhelmed us with loud music, heroic hillbillies and nausea, De Palma’s static staging and Ennio Morricone’s vastly inappropriate score highlights the silliness of the story. Worse, what little tension had been built dissolves when the second team reaches the Martian surface. The astronauts have no real threats anymore; they simply, and casually, determine the true nature of the artifact. While not as infuriating as the end of “Contact”, it’s close.
Just in case you have trouble keeping up with the glacial pace of the film, the main characters conveniently summarize all pertinent information at various times throughout the movie, just in case you might want to take a nap.
What’s the deal with the ’70’s era generation of filmmakers? Lately, they either seem to have forgotten how to make a coherent film (Terrance Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”; De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible”), an enjoyable film (Martin Scorcese’s “Bringing Out the Dead”) or a competent film (Lucas’ “SW1: The Phantom Menace”; Most of John Carpenter’s output of the last 10 years). De Palma was on fire from “Sisters” in 1973 through “Scarface” in ’83. Since “Casualties of War” in ’89, his only film to entertain me was the self-reflexive “Snake Eyes”, which nobody but me and maybe three other people liked. After three decades in the studio system, the legendary director seems to flounder without direction. Is there no hunger left? It takes some serious faith in your own talent and vision to perpetrate drug-addled masterpieces like “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Scarface”. Could you imagine either film winning a green-light from a studio today?
There’s no passion to “Mission to Mars”. Unusual for him, De Palma never imprints himself on the movie. There’s no time for torment. This time out, the director never seems to give a s**t about what’s happening in a given character’s head. He’s just walking them through the paces.
You know what the real De Palma movie would have been? A whole year passes on Mars between the death of Commander Graham’s crew and the arrival of the second team. Don Cheadle’s allowed maybe two minutes of craziness and then it’s, “I’m fine now, fellas. Thanks.” F**k that. Let’s see him properly slide off the rails during a year of being the only living human for a million miles with no form of communication or escape. The old De Palma would have made two hours just about that guy. He made movies about seemingly powerless individuals in great turmoil and how their mental disorders rose to the occasion. Any knucklehead with a green-screen studio and some SGI’s can simulate the physical journey to another planet. We need an artist who will take us on the psychological journey to another world.