Don CheadleGary SiniseTim RobbinsConnie Nielsen
Mission to Mars
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Brian De Palma
Writer: Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost
Keywords: Razzie-nominated, SF
Country: USA
Actor: Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, Peter Outerbridge, Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Elise Neal, Kim Delaney, Robert Bailey Jr.
Format: 114 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 21 October 2010
It's the other Mars film of 2000. In case you've forgotten which one is which, Red Planet is the dour, humourless one with Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss in which all the characters are tough loners and the story is basically "go to Mars and die".
Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars on the other hand is the more human one with a few laughs and a really goofy ending, in which everyone's either married or a grieving widower. It's also blessed with a less one-dimensional storyline. Both films seem to think that "people in a realistic spaceship" equals "audience interest", but this film is the one that actually has unexpected things going on. For starters, man's exploration is more advanced than it was in Red Planet, despite the fact that that film was set in 2057 and this one's 2021. There's a "World Space Station" (sic) with an international staff, directing the scientific expedition on Mars and capable of launching rescue missions. This becomes necessary when something really weird happens on the planet and scientists meet entertainingly gruesome fates.
However the film begins with a good ten minutes of us getting to know our heroes on Earth. They're having a barbecue. This has jaunty music and some jokes. It's quite fun.
Later on, of course, things get serious. We're reminded that space accidents are much nastier than normal accidents, which memorably culminates in the scene where someone's gone too far. That was a good bit. Eventually we get back to the place where the really weird stuff happened and... oh dear. They've got a Big Revelation. I wouldn't go so far as to call it trippy, but I still sensed a Kubrick hard-on. I suppose they felt they needed something spectacular in their hundred-million dollar movie, but look at the level of the actual ideas and it's the kind of nonsense that in a Doctor Who episode would have you going "yes, and?" It's not even as if big-budget Hollywood SF isn't capable of better, e.g. Minority Report, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and the Matrix films. It's not a bad ending and I suppose it does its job, after a fashion, but you're not going to respect it in the morning.
That aside, I liked the film. It's perhaps a bit stodgy, but it's better than Red Planet and it has laughs. "A frog." It's also less stupid than Red Planet, which was trying to look like a serious SF film but had geographical implausibilities that you'd expect to be picked up by a bright ten-year-old. The science here is better. No one says "artificial gravity off", for instance. Instead we've got a spinning-doughnut spaceship section that generates pseudo-gravity via centrifugal force and provides one of my favourite extended shots of the film. That was nice. Obviously the science is still bollocks, but the only screaming forehead-smacker is their notion of what you can tell from looking at a short stretch of DNA. Apart from that, the main ones I noticed were production factors like spacesuits and tent walls failing to bulge outwards as a result of Mars's low atmospheric pressure. I'm not entirely convinced that they're clear on how jet packs work, mind you.
The talent involved in this is more than respectable. De Palma of course was the director of Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, etc. As for the cast, most of the leading actors are either Oscar-winners or have been Oscar-nominated. Tim Robbins was the most recognisable for me, although I might have been confusing him with William H. Macy, but we're also seeing good work from Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, etc.
Bizarrely the film was based on a Disneyland ride. In this it joins the ranks of Tower of Terror, The Country Bears, The Haunted Mansion and the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Overall, it's okay. I appreciated the characters' maturity and intelligence, while I like the way the film is serious without being po-faced and grim. The ending is... well, at least they're being sincere. You could do worse. Brian De Palma got a Razzie nomination for Worst Director, but on the other hand the French apparently went apeshit for it. The magazine Cahiers du cinema wrote several articles about both it and DePalma, then judged it the fourth-best film of the year. Personally I found the film likeable and wholehearted without ever finding it particularly inspired, but to be honest the "realistic space travel" movie I'm looking forward to most from 2000 is Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys. It's Clint Eastwood!