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With: Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, Kim Delaney, Tim Robbins, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Written by: Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost, based upon a story by Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas, John Thomas
Directed by: Brian De Palma
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 114
Date: 03/06/2000

Mission to Mars (2000)

1 Star (out of 4)

Mission Aborted

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The race for the worst movie of the year is on! In first place is the Bette Midler comedy Isn't She Great with the Madonna drama The Next Best Thing not far behind. But wait! After a late start, Brian De Palma's science fiction fantasy Mission to Mars looks like a winner!

The main reason I can so disparage Mission to Mars is because it is just about the most condescending movie I have ever seen. This movie assumes that we in the audience are not only dumb, but are empty vessels who have never seen or experienced anything else in our lives. Every single line of dialogue and every single plot twist is stolen from other movies. But the worst is that this overly familiar dialogue is all explained to us as well. For example, one character determines that a certain atmosphere is made up of "oxygen and nitrogen". Another character chimes in that "that makes air!" All the movie had to do was show us that if the characters took off their space helmets and didn't die, there was air. These people are scientists! They know the molecular makeup of air. They don't have to explain it to each other.

The movie opens with a traditional Brian De Palma tracking shot, a Steadicam shot that lasts about five minutes, travels over a wide area, and photographs lots of people and conversation without cutting. Normally, this is pretty spectacular, but the dialogue during this sequence is all expository. The characters, who are co-workers who have presumably known each other for quite some time, get together for an afternoon barbecue. They talk all about their pasts, their backgrounds, people who have died, who got chosen for the mission and who didn't, who is married, etc. In a better movie, these characters would be talking realistically, about small things like the food, sports, etc. The dialogue explains everything directly to us instead of developing any characters. Once again, it assumes we're stupid.

I admit there are a couple of scenes that are vintage De Palma, one in which a crew of astronauts (Tim Robbins, Gary Sinese, Connie Nielsen, and Jerry O'Connell) try to get to a module floating in space after their main ship has blown up. And a brief "scare" scene in which one character moves a little to the side to reveal another standing directly behind him, made me jump a little. But most of the time it feels as if there is a robot at the helm of this movie.

The real kicker comes at the end, when the big "surprise" is revealed to us. Some computer animators cooked up a whole animated sequence to explain the secret of the world to us, and yet the characters feel the need to narrate the story as we're watching the scene unfold. Firstly, it breaks the spell that silence would have given us, and secondly, it's insulting. There's no way anyone could misinterpret these images.

I suggest we strap writers Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas, John Thomas, and Graham Yost into a spaceship and launch it for regions unknown. I'd rather not have to sit through any more of their movies. It had so little imagination that good actors like Robbins, Sinese, and Don Cheadle deliver their most wooden readings ever.

As for director Brian De Palma, I have spent a good deal of energy in the past defending him. He's incredibly smart and talented and yet something always seems to get between him and greatness. There are always at least moments of excellence in many of his films like Sisters (1973), Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), Casualties of War (1989), Raising Cain (1992), Mission: Impossible (1996), and Snake Eyes (1998). And some of these even succeed as whole works. The problem seems to be that De Palma is best when he's fighting his personal demons onscreen. But Mission to Mars has no demons. It's just shiny and happy special effects. It's in a league with De Palma's last disaster, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), but without that movie's edge.

On a side note, the great composer Ennio Morricone provided the score for Mission to Mars, and it's one of his strangest works. This is the man who put twangy guitars and horns over Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) as well as (literally) hundreds of other movies. I haven't figured out if the music would work on its own away from these insipid images, or if it's just as bad as the movie.

A young kid sitting near me during the screening of Mission to Mars was obviously close to the level that the filmmakers were aiming for. After a cut to a wide rocky, red terrain, complete with a roving sensor robot scanning the surface, the kid asked, "are they on Mars now?". But after the movie was over, the same kid quipped, "that was stupid."

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