Mission Implausible

The creationists are going to have a field day with this one. Oh, it's not as though it's possible to spoil the plot for you: The trailers for Mission to Mars reveal everything but the end credits. It would be almost impossible to set foot in the theater without knowing the story, in which three astronauts discover the true origin of life on Earth. Turns out we're descendants of the red planet's inhabitants, nearly identical to our ancestors save for a couple of key chromosomes that separate the men from the Martians. The trailer even reveals the alien -- a luminescent variation on the almond-eyed extraterrestrial seen in nearly every modern film on the subject. The only surprise left, perhaps, is how the film fails to fill in the blanks. It only pretends to be profound; in truth, it's as empty as space itself.

What director Brian De Palma and his screenwriters have concocted isn't merely a mishmash of ideas, a pastiche of other films -- though it's indeed hard to sit through Mission to Mars without playing spot-the-influence. What's really going on here is a director trying to remake himself: De Palma, who for years tried to fit into Alfred Hitchcock's hand-me-downs, finally made his Big Statement Picture, only to wind up going where better men have gone before. Sci-fi being the only genre he hadn't yet gotten his grubby mitts around and strangled, Mission to Mars is what happens when a film junkie gets hold of millions of dollars' worth of Tinkertoys and a script written by a video-store clerk. Not only does it make no sense -- a De Palma trademark, since his Mission: Impossible was comprehensible only when viewed backward -- but it comes up hollow, cheap, and cynical. The trailer, with its stark shots of spacemen walking through all-white interiors, hints at 2001: A Space Odyssey. If only Mission to Mars aimed so low.

Actually, it would be too simple to dismiss Mission to Mars as a low-rent 2001, though it certainly is that -- from the anti-gravity centrifuge to the better-living-through-alien-technology finale that ends the movie with one giant, anticlimactic shrug. (We came 100 million miles for this?) De Palma and writers Jim and John Thomas and Graham Yost not only think theirs is an inventive premise, but they're unwilling to even deal with its consequences -- they're arrogant cowards. The revelation almost feels tacked on and unfinished: It takes nearly the entirety of the film to get to Mars (there is only a brief sequence set on the planet early on), and when our heroes finally do land, they seem to forget why they're there in the first place.

Cheap and Cynical: Connie Nielsen, Gary Sinise, and Jerry O'Connell in Mission to Mars.
Rob McEwan
Cheap and Cynical: Connie Nielsen, Gary Sinise, and Jerry O'Connell in Mission to Mars.

The film begins promisingly: While Buckwheat Zydeco blares on the soundtrack, a rocket blasts off, only to explode into a shower of confetti, a child's firework rendered as visual gag. Eight NASA astronauts -- among them Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and wife Terri (Connie Nielsen), Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell) -- have gathered at a backyard barbecue in the year 2020 to bid farewell to their families. Half are due to blast off for Mars the next day, and the rest will follow later -- all except the man "who wrote the book on Mars," Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), whose wife Maggie (played in videotape flashback by Kim Delaney) has recently died of an unspecified illness. Jim pulled himself from the Mars mission to care for Maggie, though he still longs to go. He spent 12 years training, and wants only to plant his foot on the red planet.

Cut to 13 months later, on Mars' surface. Luke and his fellow travelers on the Mars One encounter an anomaly on the surface, a mountain obscuring an enormous metal object. But they venture too close to the object, which apparently interprets the astronauts' radar scans as hostile (see any number of Star Trek episodes for further explanation) and sets out to destroy the travelers with an enormous sand worm right out of Dune. One astronaut even suffers an inexplicably grisly death -- inexplicable, because, not too much later, the alien hiding beneath this mountain, which turns out to be a giant mask of a humanoid face, is benevolent and welcoming. Why it would choose to kill its "offspring" is unfathomable.

Suddenly, an exploration becomes a rescue mission: Woody, Terri, Phil, and, yes, Jim are sent in the Mars Two to retrieve Luke -- though it takes them a year to get to Mars (and it feels like it), and when they do arrive, they're surprised to find him alive ("Luke, you're alive!"). Worse, when they do find him, looking and acting like a man spouting end-of-the-world prophecies on a Hollywood street corner, they're ready to head back to Earth -- until Jim remembers, seemingly out of nowhere, there's that dang giant mask they need to go back and investigate. Somewhere in there is a rather ludicrous explanation about musical notes and hidden DNA codes, all of which is explained with a few random strokes on a keyboard. One longs for the awe and innocence of Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters, explaining the aliens' musical tones using sign language and a small, sweet smile.

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