Mission to Mars (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Forget The Bonfire of the Vanities. With Mission to Mars, director Brian De Palma has reached a new nadir. Easily the worst movie to date of 2000 (although the year is still young...), Mission to Mars beats out such worthy contenders as Supernova, Eye of the Beholder, and Isn't She Great. Ineptly directed, badly acted, and scripted with an eye towards stupidity and incoherence, the film is worthwhile only to those who are in desperate need of a nap. And, as is often the case when a big budget, high profile motion picture self-destructs, this one does so in spectacular fashion. Sifting through the rubble, the only salvagable element is Ennio Morricone's score - music that, while not among the composer's top work, is infinitely better than anything else in this misbegotten movie.

Science fiction movies are often derivative, some moreso than others. The best sci-fi pictures borrow familiar themes and devices then combine and re-invigorate those elements in a manner that allows them to seem fresh and enjoyable. In bad films, however, there exists the pervasive sense of tiredness and the lack of energy that often comes from lackluster copycatting. The inspiration (and I hesistate to use that word in any context associated with this movie) for Mission to Mars is apparently Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there are also steals from Contact, Apollo 13, The Abyss, and even 1999's The Mummy.

It has been more than a decade since De Palma has crafted anything worth watching. (I'm referring to 1987's The Untouchables.) Best known throughout his career for imitating Hitchcock, the filmmaker seems like an odd choice to direct what is supposed to be a relatively cerebral space adventure. The result is chaotic and unbalanced, with De Palma ripping off everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Ron Howard in a desperate attempt to do something with the unworkable script he was handed. Admittedly, it's unfair to lay all the blame for Mission to Mars at De Palma's feet. Writers Jim Thomas, John Thomas, and Graham Yost deserve an equal share for a screenplay that is lacking in both intelligence and credibility. Their work here makes the human interest aspects of Armageddon seem well realized by comparison.

Stripped of the rotted flesh that comprises the screenplay, the premise underlying Mission to Mars has promise. The concept of a long, lonely journey through space to the red planet, followed by unexpected revelations about the origins of life on Earth could provide involving adventure and drama - just not the way it's handled in this production. If the details were right, the framework alone could provide the requisite suspense to keep an audience interested. Here, however, several contrived situations are grafted into the plot to generate artificial tension. None of these grossly improbable and obviously scripted moments works on any level. In fact, one supposedly taut and emotional moment (involving the "heroic" death of a character) provoked laughter from the audience - definitely not the intended reaction.

Mission to Mars, which takes place around the year 2020, begins with a series of lame character building moments that introduce the five principals, all of whom are NASA astronauts. They are: Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), a Mars expert who has been barred from interplanetary travel because of psychological repercussions resulting from the death of his wife; Luc Goddard (Don Cheadle), the captain of the first manned mission to Mars; the husband-and-wife team of Woody and Terry Blake (Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen), who are slated for an upcoming mission; and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell), a member of Woody's crew. These scenes, which transpire during a bon voyage picnic for Luc, feature lengthy bouts of dialogue-driven exposition as characters explain to each other things that they already know. (It goes something like this: "Jim, you should be going on this mission; unfortunately, since the tragic death of your beloved wife, you have been declared psychologically unfit and have to stay behind.") Eventually, the film gets around to chronicling the first mission - something it does perfunctorily, with no sense of the wonder, awe, and media frenzy one would expect. The ordinariness accorded to the event makes it seem like the astronauts are on a routine orbit around the Earth. Of course, something goes wrong, NASA loses contact with the four explorers, and a rescue mission has to be mounted.

It's astonishing how many bad choices Mission to Mars makes. The film ignores an obvious source of possible suspense. Communications from Mars to Earth take 20 minutes. This delay could easily be exploited, but the filmmakers drop it almost as soon as it is introduced, preferring instead to concentrate on things like a homicidal sandstorm. One thing that makes Mission to Mars' action sequences so laughable is the poor quality of the special effects. In an era when even small budget movies can boast effective visuals, the kind of cheesiness evident in Mission to Mars is unacceptable.

Members of the cast will probably do their best to hide this credit on their resumes, perhaps claiming that what appears to be them are actually digitally generated facsimiles. That at least would explain the plastic style of acting. The normally reliable Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle are especially disappointing. Meanwhile, Armin Mueller-Stahl's performance is the kind of overwrought job one would expect in a parody. In fact, if I didn't know better, I would swear that he mistook Mission to Mars for a comedy.

Mission to Mars is at least instructive in illustrating how wrong a supposedly "can't miss" prospect can go. In general, the public loves science fiction, but there are levels to which even the most undiscriminating viewer will not sink, and Mission to Mars reaches those. From beginning to end, there's not a worthwhile moment to be uncovered. With this effort, De Palma has proven that The Bonfire of the Vanities was less of a fluke than one might suppose.

Mission to Mars (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2000-03-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1