[Written for Film.com]
In the opening ten minutes of Mission to Mars, we receive all the mandatory backstory of the typical modern Hollywood movie: relationships are explicitly spelled out in the dialogue, a bond between a father and son (never again referred to) is invoked, personal histories are described with a minimum of subtlety. Director Brian De Palma, who has often been bored by this sort of thing in his movies, barely makes an effort here. A couple of longish Steadycam shots, at an astronaut party on the eve of a Mars expedition, represent an attempt to jazz things up — albeit rather pale in the light of the pyrotechnics of the opening of De Palma’s Snake Eyes. The dialogue is rock bottom, EXPOSITION writ large and crammed into every available mouth. Houston, we’ve got a problem.
It gets worse before it gets better. Let’s make a general statement here and declare that camaraderie has never been De Palma’s forte. Paranoia, suspicion, obsession, yes indeedy, but the bonhomie so beloved of the manly blockbuster, whether of the Jerry Bruckheimer or Ron Howard variety, clunks on the floor of a De Palma picture. Since Mission to Mars is full of space jockeys brimming with NASA can-do spirit, there’s a lot of clunking in the early going.
Then, it gets cooking. The visions of Mars, those vast vistas and weird crags familiar from the covers of countless 1950s sci-fi magazines, are nifty. And, in a creepy sequence, the expedition led by Don Cheadle encounters a deadly dust storm, which prompts a rescue mission to fly toward the Red Planet and investigate. The rescuers are Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, Connie Nielsen (who made quite an impression in Devil’s Advocate, and displays a cool René Russo–esque sangfroid here), and Jerry O’Connell.
For a good 40 minutes or so in the middle of this movie, De Palma is in his element. Two spiffy suspense sequences, one hard upon the other, bring the movie to life. The first has the rescue ship punctured, and a quick patch-up job required. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the movie, but it sure distracts us effectively for a while — and the odd organ-driven music by Ennio Morricone helps. Next, the foursome must abandon their ride and attempt a cool space-walk maneuver just above the atmosphere of Mars. Although it turns to corn — another of De Palma’s short suits — it’s awesomely staged.
The finale brings us into the arena of Close Encounters and Contact; it’s serviceable but not nearly as soaring as it’s meant to be. The generally solemn tone may not capture the Bruckheimer crowd (that’s a compliment), and the film sorely lacks movie-star energy. The baby face of Tim Robbins still suggests a college political organizer, not an exemplar of The Right Stuff, while Gary Sinise looks like a character actor thrust somewhat reluctantly into the spotlight. De Palma used Sinise to clever ends in Snake Eyes, but here there’s nothing beyond the sleepy air of depression and sense of forthright square play.
One other observation: with the morbid Bicentennial Man, the strong B-movie Pitch Black, and this picture, old-school science fiction is making something of a comeback. Even if their styles vary (and acknowledging that Mission to Mars is not a very good movie), all three films have traditional contours, and a pleasingly nostalgic sense of story and theme. The trend may not last, but right now I like it.