MISSION TO MARS
A few months ago, I was at a press screening for another Touchstone film which was preceded by a teaser trailer for Mission to Mars. As the trailer unfolded, the critics in the audience began to snicker with increasing frequency. The imagery used was startling similar to images from 2001: A Space Odyssey -- an astronaut in a white room, an approach to a dark object in the distance, a figure spinning off into space.
It was comical not just because of the familiarity, but because it seemed so quintessentially Brian De Palma. This was, after all, the director who had built a 25 year career on cribbing from his most talented predecessors. The train station sequence in The Untouchables came from Eisenstein's Potemkin; the single-take opening sequence in Snake Eyes felt like Welles' Touch of Evil; whole heaping chunks of his early films appropriated Hitchcockian devices. So why wouldn't De Palma take on the most iconic science-fiction film ever made while making his first science-fiction film? Why not add Kubrick to his list of auteur theft victims?
To be fair, Mission to Mars the film is not nearly as similar to 2001 as the trailers might lead you to fear. It's more alarming that it's similar to the cookie-cutter Hollywood approach to any story. The film focuses primarily on the aftermath of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2020. After an unexplainable phenomenon kills the rest of his crew, Mission Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) sends a cryptic message back to mission control. That message sets in motion a recovery mission led by Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and pilot Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), both close friends of Graham. The recovery team members face their own perils on the way to the Red Planet, risking their lives to discover its mysterious secret.
The frustrating thing about any Brian De Palma film is that you can always count on at least one extended sequence where you realize what a brilliant technical craftsman he can be. That sequence in Mission to Mars comes about halfway through the film, a 20-minute stretch following an accident in which the recovery craft starts losing atmosphere. A chain reaction of events following that accident keeps building tension, leading to some genuinely tense moments. De Palma's sense for timing this sort of sequence is impeccable -- recall the editing of Tom Cruise's computer room break-in in Mission: Impossible -- leading to the hope that Mission to Mars can maintain that sort of visual and emotional energy.
And then you remember this is Brian De Palma. Every once in a while, by sheer twisted accident, De Palma ends up working with a rich, smart script -- The Untouchables, Blow Out, Carlito's Way. More often, you get the impression that he looks for a script with a few places he can show off his visual flair. Mission to Mars has its showcase sequence, but it also has a leaden script full of plug-and-play characterizations. Sinise's McConnell is portrayed as haunted by the death from cancer of his beloved wife/fellow astronaut ("NYPD Blue's" Kim Delaney in flashback); Cheadle gets a sensitive moment with his anxious son on the night before his departure. It's the sort of mawkish back-story screenwriters use all the time in adventure films, in a token -- and usually futile -- attempt to show that the people matter more than the concept.
Ironically, Mission to Mars is that rare case where the concept does matter more than the people. Kubrick understood that 2001 was about the mysteries of the universe and the flight of the entire human race, not just whether Dave Bowman was torn up over his personal tragedies. When Mission to Mars gets metaphysical, it makes sure there's someone on hand to narrate every brutally obvious revelation, and someone whose individual journey to wholeness
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