This article appeared in Issue 19 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Finally, a motion picture that captures man's desire to reach for the heavens, to quench the unending thirst for knowledge, and to invigorate the senses with the wonders of exploration and discovery. Looking forward toward our next giant leap into the vastness of space, "Mission to Mars" is a tribute to man's long-standing fascination with the red planet, a celestial body that has been feared, revered, and worshipped ever since our predecessors first looked up at the night sky. Sound too good to be true? Well, as the saying goes, 'If it's too good to be true, it probably is'. "Mission to Mars", the first of two films on the red planet this year, is firmly stuck on the launch pad.
The year is 2020, and NASA sends a multinational crew of four astronauts millions of miles away to set foot on Mars, on a mission led by Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle of "Out of Sight"). Unfortunately, while exploring a strange geological formation that may hold the key to permanent human habitation in the future, all communication is lost. The only clue to the fate of the astronauts lies in one final garbled transmission from Graham, who only has time to say that his entire crew is dead before fading out.
In the hopes of finding Graham alive and uncovering the mishap that caused the mission's failure, the head of NASA's mission control (Armin Mueller-Stahl of "The X-Files: Fight the Future") orders another vessel to undertake a rescue mission. On board are the husband and wife team of Mission Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins of "Arlington Road") and Medical Officer Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen of "Soldier"), scientist Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell of "Scream 2"), and hotshot pilot Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise, seen recently in "Reindeer Games"). For Jim, the trip is an especially arduous one, given that it is his first mission since the untimely death of his wife (Kim Delaney of TV's "NYPD Blue"), whose terminal illness forced him to scrub his participation in the first mission to Mars. Unfortunately, the four would-be rescuers find their hands full when a number of unexpected crises place their lives in jeopardy, and their investigation into the failure of the first mission uncovers some unexpected revelations about the origins of life on Earth.
The most interesting aspect of "Mission to Mars" is playing 'spot the rip-off' as director Brian De Palma steals bits from every science fiction and space movie from the past three decades. From the production design elements that evoke Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", to the dramatization of group problem-solving dynamics seen in "Apollo 13", to the life-versus-death struggle and friendly aliens of "The Abyss", "Mission to Mars" is more akin to a sci-fi hall of fame clip show.
Even more glaring than the numerous borrowed story elements are the excruciatingly obvious attempts at product placement that smack of crass commercialism. While a number of them are tolerable (such as a 'Compaq' label on the computers that the astronauts use), others are laughable, such as having a Pennzoil logo on the first mission's mars rover, or the use of Doctor Pepper soda as a means of saving the ship from explosive decompression.
In addition to the rampant copycatting mentioned earlier, the story could have also used some work. The script chooses to emphasize the wrong elements of the story, while wasting much of its time on contrived crises and expositional dialogue. As a result, the story seems rushed, as it tries to cover a lot of ground, and skips a number of steps to stay on track. The story has the potential to create a number of exceptionally inspirational moments-- the momentous first landing on Mars the final look at Earth before setting off into the deep void of space, and the triumphant voyage home. Unfortunately, the audience is not privy to such momentous scenes.
Instead, the more profound events of the story are trimmed to provide room for De Palma to show off his prowess at realizing episodic stabs at tension, clumsily executed attempts at exposition, and cloying attempts at sentimentality. A perfect example of these ill-placed priorities in action is easily found right in the film's opening scene, a farewell barbecue in which De Palma imitates Orson Welles' famous opening tracking shot from "Touch of Evil" to introduce all the major stock characters and have them remind each other what their motivations are. Similarly, later on in the film, the inner turmoil of Sinise's character is hammered home with the use of melodramatic Hallmark moments that speak more to the emotional manipulation of the director versus the emotional resonance of the story.
Acting is also in short supply on "Mission to Mars". From Armin Mueller-Stahl's hackneyed and heavy-handed approach to playing the mission controller, to Jerry O'Connell's stilted attempts at providing relief, to Sinise's painfully-obvious emoting, it seems that the entire film was culled from out-takes. Other than blaming the poor performances on having to portray blandly-written characters, one could suggest that the actors were suffering from 'Harrison Ford burnout syndrome', an affliction which resulted in Harrison Ford merely showing up to get his paycheck in "Return of the Jedi".
Director Brian De Palma has done some remarkable films in the past, such as "Scarface" and "The Untouchables". But lately he seems to have lost his passion for advancing the art of film, and "Mission to Mars" is a prime example of this. With little to offer other than a collection of clips from better science fiction films, this wannabe sci-fi epic is as ineptly executed as some of the recent real-life NASA missions to Mars. In an age where man's future as a space-faring race is placed increasingly in doubt, we need more films with a bold vision that will inspire a generation to leap towards the stars, not empty-headed commercials that cater to the lowest common denominator. Those in search of compelling drama about space exploration are better off checking out "From the Earth to the Moon", the Tom Hanks produced HBO miniseries that eloquently captures the real-life passion, ingenuity, and triumph of the Apollo program.