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Mission to Mars

Coming soon to a MST3K episode near you?

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost

With Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, Tim Robbins

Toward the end of Mission To Mars, a trio of intrepid interplanetary explorers (Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, and Connie Nielsen) come face to face with a representative of another civilization. As this representative saunters toward the camera in all its computer-generated glory, as the score swells to the unbearably saccharin level, as the actors furrow their brows to signify utter amazement, it’s clear that the film is working extra-hard to make this a Scene of High Significance. Just at this moment, a girl a couple of rows behind me said, quite loudly, “Nanoo-nanoo,” and the whole audience broke out in applause. This is what movies so rarely are these days: a communal experience, uniting the audience with the single emotional response. In this particular case, this response is: “This is so bad, I might as well laugh at it.” Mission to Mars is not as much SF (science fiction) as SR (shameless ripoff).

It doesn’t start out quite so badly: director Brian De Palma (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) displays a certain amount of wit when it concerns orchestrating neat extended shots, and the opening one is quite enjoyable. The introductory scene feels recycled, of course, since it copies the opening of Apollo 13 on a nearly shot-by-shot and character-by-character basis. There’s a party, utilizing the contrast between the heroic profession of the people that we see and their down-to-earth behavior. Don Cheadle, in the Tom Hanks part, is a family man; Jerry O’Connel (Scream 2), in the Kevin Bacon part, is a single comic-relief guy who keeps making passes at women; and Gary Sinise, in the Gary Sinise part, is the guy who is not cleared for the mission and is doomed to stay on Earth. There are also Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen on hand, playing a married couple, and they are as convincing as a couple of actors can be if they decided to wear exactly the same facial expressions for the entire movie.

Very soon, the movie cuts to Mars (omitting such extraneous details as actually getting there), and decides, for a change, to steal from another movie, namely The Mummy, when a group of mostly expendable characters are obliterated by a massive computer-generated sand whirl. The scene is directed in the following highly creative manner: it cuts from a shot of this sand whirl, approaching very slowly, to a tight close-up of a spaceman, who stands still, looking vaguely perplexed. Cut back to the whirl. Cut back to the perplexed guy. Repeat a dozen times. Wake the dozing audience by a very graphic computer-generated dismemberment.

Now it’s up to our intrepid second crew (Sinise, Robbins, Nielsen, O’Connell) to fly to Mars to find out what happened there -- and from now on, we are in a full 2001: A Space Odyssey mode. It would take too long to list the number of ways Mission to Mars steals from the Stanley Kubrick film, so I think I’ll save my time and simply say that the rip-offs only serve to make the movie poor. Mission to Mars, though, is not poor: it’s laughably poor, since it feels like it was either written by idiots or for idiots (the film’s screenwriters, Jim Thomas and John Thomas, wrote Wild Wild West, which would indicate the former, while the presence of cowriter Graham Yost, who wrote Speed, seems to indicate the latter).

Not only does the screenplay fail to demonstrate any understanding of the basic laws of physics (such as conservation of momentum or energy) in the flight scenes, but it flatly fails to provide a single moment of excitement or even action by falling down on the lamest imaginable plot devices. If these are the smartest people on Earth, then humanity is in trouble.

After some more borrowing from such movies as Alien and Contact, the film reaches the conclusion, which is a laugh riot. For example, in one scene, there’s a tight shot of a computer that shows, in big letters, “ATMOSPHERE: O2 and N2,” which is followed by one character helpfully remarking, “Atmosphere here is a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen,” and another even more helpfully explaining, “Otherwise known as air.” Then come cheesy special effects: the alien, the holding of hands around the symbolic representation of Earth, another sequence that implies that the mammoth evolved directly from the dinosaur, and many more close-ups of actors who are on hand clearly just to get a paycheck. I can understand why Tim Robbins did this movie: this must have been the only way he could have had Cradle Will Rock produced at the same studio, but I have no idea why Don Cheadle or Gary Sinise would want to participate in this. Not that they really participate: Cheadle is fine, but his part is small; Sinise keeps smirking like there’s no tomorrow; Robbins looks vaguely confused about what he’s doing there in the first place; and Nielsen exhibits the perfectly identical blank facial expression for the entire film.

So I can understand why the audience started, at first, laughing at the film and, eventually, heckling it; I must admit I did it, too, unable to resists the opportunities that seem to cry out for a comment from The Crow or Tom Servo. Indeed, Mission to Mars would make a perfect subject for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment.