Mission to Mars
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Brian De Palma. Cast: Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, Connie Nielsen, Don Cheadle, Jerry O'Connell, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Peter Outerbridge, Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Kim Delaney, Elise Neal. Screenplay: Jim Thomas & John Thomas and Graham Yost (based on a screen story by Lowell Cannon and Jim Thomas & John Thomas).

Photo © 2000 Touchstone Pictures
On this side: widespread critical scorn, commercial disaster, and a Razzie nomination for Brian De Palma for Worst Director. In the other corner, Armond White: "Mission to Mars is a litmus test. It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans it does not understand movies, let alone like them. They'd be better off reviewing static, juvenile media like television or comic books." I'm not even going to get into the profound speciousness of the whole Razzie project, nor into White's self-serving compulsions to mar his own interesting opinions with reductive and atrebilious overstatements. Call me craven, but I feel sure that Mission to Mars isn't nearly as bad or nearly as accomplished as its detractors or champions espoused amid their memorable slugfest. Say this for the movie: almost every memorable bit plays to the film's advantage, and certainly to De Palma's, even if the general fabric from which they emerge is more than a little frayed.

The opening sequence blends technical virtuosity with a kind of warm and personal storytelling modesty that's rare for De Palma: Stephen H. Burum's graceful, almost zero-gravity camera executes a miraculous sequence shot that evokes the breezy domesticity of a backyard barbeque, while staying just shy of being too smug or showy about its own formal accomplishment. No slam intended on Boogie Nights, but I'm more impressed when a sustained shot like this culminates in a textured evocation of an almost quotidian event than when filmmakers drop one in for obvious razzle-dazzle. Not that the mood around this party is uncomplicated: the gathered families are saying goodbye to a quartet of astronauts preparing to rocket off to Mars, and everyone's aware that a key member of their group has been passed over for the mission, for as-yet unspecified reasons involving personal pain. One wishes he weren't played by Gary Sinise, one of the modern cinema's most impossible actors to like, and pretty dismal here at evoking anything beyond the remarkably similar part he played in Apollo 13 (which feels somehow, on De Palma's part, like an unfairly ironic jab at Howard's film). Still, the fond, fumbling, slightly testy concern shown to Sinise's Jim McConnell by his colleague Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), who will steward the Mars mission in his stead, and by Luke's wife Debra (Elise Neal, the upscale wife in Hustle & Flow) marks the first of several moments when Mission to Mars evokes some plausibly layered human relationships, often in unexpected contexts. Later, Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen, as the married astronauts Woody Blake and Terri Fisher, will have a clunky conversation where she goads him to take dance lessons once they're back on Earth, as he has apparently been promising. You know this will prompt a floaty moment inside the space capsule where Robbins, as huge and graceless as ever, will invite her to glide through the air with him, but I was impressed at how De Palma saved this hammy thread in the story by eliciting such a palpable mix of eye-rolling laughter and palpable affection from the characters. He also marshals Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away," a rare dip into contemporary pop music, to anchor the scene in proud pop cheesiness, further abetted by Burum's agile and clean photography.

It won't be long before Woody and Terri's relationship endures an awful test, in a sequence that is not only the starkest in feeling and the most brilliantly assembled in the film, but which uses the profound vacuum and the flabbergasting slowness of space, plus the comparative meagerness of even NASA's most cutting-edge technology, to masterful narrative and emotional effect. So many outer-space dramas, largely because most of them embrace "action" templates in such an unimaginatively high-velocity way, never take any poetic or rhythmic advantage of this extraordinary idiom. While Mission to Mars certainly slips into plenty of its own clichés and some failed gambits at jerry-rigged suspense, I felt more than fairly compensated by its smarter, tauter episodes: a fuel leakage, for example, that produces a peculiar residual object, which in turn causes a bigger and different problem than you see coming, and a consequent moment where the crew members show some off-the-cuff ingenuity about finding punctures in the fuselage of the spacecraft. This last bit involves some bald product placements, which is a recurring and annoying problem in the film, but De Palma manipulates even the debased injunction to sell us some Dr. Pepper into the sly and salient service of his story, and he convinces us of something else we rarely glean about movie astronauts: it's not just that they know a lot, train exhaustively, and work with a lot of rarefied machinery, but they've also got some quick, formidable wits about them in a crisis.

Mission to Mars works best when, like his characters, De Palma demonstrates canniness and ingenuity, sometimes with his tongue firmly in cheek, about what to do in a tough situation: in his case, how to put over a standard-issue screenplay where an intrepid crew of élites runs into some mysterious Trouble, and then a second wave of élites has to chase after them and attempt a rescue, notwithstanding all the political motives and personal liabilities that kept them from being part of the initial mission. The risk of a moribund film is only heightened by a couple of actors who look either bored (Sinise, Armin Mueller-Stahl) or predictably helpless and callow (Jerry O'Connell), plus a final half-hour where Disney patently chases that Contact vibe of squishy sentimentality—redrawing the galactic void as a great place to learn cheesily illustrated science (in a sustained, misbegotten F/X shot) and to reconnect with dead people you love (via a lachrymose montage of "keepsake" images from the film, a device unworthy of the filmmakers). The movie unquestionably jives more to the darkness of the cosmos than to the ruddy surface of Mars itself, mostly rendered as a model set with even more obviously miniature prop-vehicles scurrying around it. It's a shame to be stuck in a red-planet thriller that emits a reluctance about visiting that planet, but De Palma can't think of anything to do on Mars except huddle inside one marooned survivor's lean-to and then break into another interior location that I shouldn't say too much about. Pasting all of these scenes together are a series of dialogue scenes, logical connections, and thematic compromises that only the most groveling auteurist—or, I suppose, a viewer who will valorize absolutely anything as long as it doesn't smack of Star Wars—will applaud. The ending, when it arrives, is remarkably rushed and irritatingly twee, and pursuant to a series of effects-driven scenes that look expensive and unusual but don't reverberate with any beauty or wonder. It's one thing for De Palma to flex a dubious script so as to play up what interests him and to skimp on what doesn't; it's another for a filmmaking team to be so flippant toward what they're doing that they shortchange the film, the characters, and the audience, even on the highly idiosyncratic terms into which they have defiantly translated the material.

But again, whatever's shoddy or limp about Mission to Mars, however conspicuous while the film unfolds, all becomes admirably pale as the full viewing experience recedes and the good stuff emerges in proud bas-relief. No matter how disdainfully disconnected from the project De Palma occasionally feels, he at least gets away with a few well-placed and well-delivered barbs. When one character rejects a sensational turn of events as "impossible," Sinise's Jim retorts, "We're millions of miles from Earth inside a giant white face—what's impossible?", and the film, for a moment, feels contagiously, un-self-seriously merry about entertaining us, instead of just patchy and lackadaisical about pulling itself together. Cheadle gets a similarly good line as he receives his considerably banged-up rescue outfit, but even more intriguing is his character's behavior during the first-act cataclysm that prompts the rescue to begin with. Amid a flurry of De Palma's trademark Eisensteinian montage, as Cheadle's crew is pulverized one by one by some mysterious amorphous power they have awakened—one poor sot gets literally spun to pieces—the cross-cuts back to Cheadle's face bespeak not a terrified onlooker, an aggrieved friend, or a distressed captain but a kind of radical, illegible passivity. Is he curious about what's befalling his mates? Is he paralyzed? Traumatized? At some level, does he have no reaction? Given the director's sometime habit of cool detachment, this frisson intrigues. Even better, the specter of Cheadle's flat affect during these crucial moments haunts the rest of his performance, though neither the story nor the filmmaking ever explicitly harks back to these unsettling impressions.

De Palma hasn't, in general, made Mission to Mars into a consistent chiller. He hasn't made it into a consistent anything, but he still gets sharp, unusual scares from tiny moments like this. They go a long way toward overshadowing moments like when Ennio Morricone's fussily florid score crashes over the stock-villain image of Cheadle's ragged and wind-blown face, looming like a hateful threat to the comrades who have come looking for him. That's an instance when De Palma's penchant for provocative aural and visual rhetoric leads him to an errant decision; more mundanely deflating are the seemingly infinite times that some lamely improvising actor expostulates "Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!" To watch Mission to Mars might well constitute an ordeal for audiences who have no capacity for patience and no interest in formal nuance, but to say so saddles the audience with all the blame for Mission's infamous critical and commercial failure. Armond White and others be damned, to regard this film is at the very least to observe the director's highly erratic commitment to a movie on which he has nonetheless impressed his most distinctive signatures, and to sense that he is not entirely surrounded by people who can hold the movie together when his own will starts to sag. I couldn't look at this film, nor could I look at anyone who might ask me, and exclaim that this is great art, or even top-drawer entertainment. But when the movie works, it works in fresh and commanding ways, clearly shaped by master craftsmen who know what they're doing when they feel like doing it, and whose images exert more emotional pull than I ever would have guessed. Grade: B–

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