Mission to Mars

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Mission to Mars

6/10/10

USA 2000, dir. Brian De Palma, stars Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been having a right go at Mission To Mars – judging from the reviews you’d think it was some kind of cinematic disaster on the scale of, say, The Avengers or any of those films where Jude Law plays Jude and Ray Winstone plays Ray. But I went along with an open mind. The trailers I’d seen were pretty promising, and while Brian De Palma’s last film, Snake Eyes, was a major disappointment, it nevertheless proved that, although he’ll never regain the heights of Carrie and Blow Out, he’s still one of the most technically audacious film-makers in Hollywood, with a keen (if bitter) sense of humour and a terrific visual skill.

And I must admit I quite enjoyed Mission To Mars. It’s nothing special – the only Mars film that’s much out of the ordinary is probably Total Recall – but to brand it “one of the all-time bad movies” (Variety) is way off the mark, and suggests that the reviewer in question doesn’t visit his local multiplex very often. Yes, the film does borrow many ideas and images from previous science-fiction epics, but it does so in an original and interesting way. For example, De Palma’s clearly referring to 2001 during a sequence which shows the characters walking round the walls of their spacecraft, but he puts his own stamp on the scene by having the camera itself also floating, weightless, around the various cabins. He’s famous for his use of long, technically demanding tracking shots – he’s showing off his mastery of the latest technologies, but here it’s also entirely appropriate to the material.

The film is full of such impressive visual flourishes. I especially liked the sequence in which the astronauts walk through a 3-D holograph showing the history of Mars and Earth and the evolution of Earth’s creatures. The elaborate effects work stands in nice contrast to the very straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered story: in the year 2020, a NASA expedition – featuring Don Cheadle – lands on Mars but is attacked by a mysterious force – an enormous, malevolent tornado which is controlled by unseen powers. A second expedition – featuring Sinise and Robbins – sets out to find out what happened and bring back any survivors. After various mishaps, the astronauts discover much more than they bargained for – nothing less than the secrets of the origin of life on Earth.

In many ways, this is a typical American space movie, full of dopey philosophical speculations, gung-ho jargon, unbelievable scrapes and last-minute rescues. To put it mildly, it isn’t much of a stretch of the actors involved – Cheadle, in particular, is sadly wasted, and you’d never guess that he’s one of the half-dozen most talented performers in Hollywood at the moment (as a video double bill of Boogie Nights and Out Of Sight should easily prove). But that isn’t really the point. This kind of thing stands or falls on its visuals and its set-pieces, and on not dragging too badly during the down-time. On those scores Mission To Mars is a very solid entrant in the genre, and De Palma is still capable of bringing more talent flair to the project than most directors could even dream of. So don’t believe the critics – apart from me, of course.