Mission To Mars (2000)

ATTACK OF THE SCI-FI SOAP OPERA SERIAL

PART TWO

by Sean Ledden

Mission to Mars

Mission to MUSH (OOPS, I mean MARS)

Mission to Mars came out in 2000, and unlike Contact, it avoids the God question entirely. This should be refreshing, but unfortunately it is so besotted with sex and romance it doesn’t have another idea in its pretty little head. Directed by Brian de Palma, who’s made some really fun stuff like Carrie, it does have a number of virtues. It has a good cast, a first-rate production design by Ed Verreaux, and excellent visual effects produced by armies of technicians at Dream Quest Images, ILM, and Tippett Studios. Unlike so many recent big budget movies, it isn’t plagued by A.D.D.-style editing. To his credit de Palma lets the camera linger so you can actually feel like your up in a space station, or on the surface of Mars. The movie also boasts a gorgeous score by the Great and Wonderful Ennio Morricone. Unfortunately, it’s a dirge from start to finish. (That’s what they asked for, and that’s what Ennio gave’um!) So in that frame of mind I suppose it’s time to view the body.

Mission to Mars gets it wrong right from its endless beginning at a Houston barbecue in which a bunch of NASA astronauts talk, and talk, and talk, about – what? Space, or their mission, or God forbid science? Nope, they talk about themselves. And thus about sex.

Woody (Tim Robbins) gloats over a future mission with his wife Terri (Connie Nielsen) “under his command.” Chuckle, chuckle. A nameless, and bitter woman complains that both Woody and Terri will be on that mission (doing you know what!), while a nameless stud puts the moves on various babes with the “I’ll be off in space for over a year” line. (It’s kind of complicated, but evidently there’s a 4-person mission that’s just about to launch off, and a future 4-person mission in the works.) Then party host Luke (Don Cheadle), who’s in the upcoming mission, tries to comfort his worried son, while Luke’s wife Debra tries to cheer up Jim (Gary Sinise), who’s depressed about his dead wife. You see, it was supposed to be Jim and his dead wife going up in Luke’s mission. But she’s dead now, and he’s depressed – so they’re not. (Jim is to Mission to Mars what Ellie was to Contact – the miserable center.) Then after the party, Woody and Luke try to cheer up the still depressed Jim over beers and male-bonding. Then Jim teases Woody about a little Flash Gordon rocket necklace he wears, and – are you as bored by all this as I am? Something to think about is that these two rambling, inconsequential scenes take up an entire 10 minutes of screen time. It’s incredible.

Then suddenly, after Sad Jim plants a Neal Armstrong-esque footprint in the dirt of Luke’s backyard we cut to Mars … So – successfully landing the first manned-mission on Mars is less interesting than a backyard barbecue??? – DePalma & crew think so, and Ennio’s sad, lovely music turns what should be a thrilling triumph into a wistful scene of regret and lost opportunity. I’d yell “What the #&$^$^$&#&!” at this point, only I’m too depressed. Anyways, it’s here that mission leader Luke and his crew discover a mountain with some mysterious properties. Aiming radar sensors at it they unleash a marvelously realized dust storm that’s half sandworm and half tornado. It promptly destroys the Mars mission, and when things calm down we see that the mysterious mountain is in fact a giant sculpture of an alien face looking up into the sky.

Mission to Mars

The very nifty "Sandworm Sandstorm"

Back on the “World Space Station,” we get the first of many, and inevitable allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Obyssey – which is the space station itself. Nifty! Later we get a beautiful tracking shot of astronauts walking and working all around a space wheel, and even the computer voice in the Mars Mission spaceship sounds a little like someone whose name begins with “H.” Every one of these “hommages” is beautifully done on a technical level, but De Palma & crew were ill advised here. All they do is remind of you a much, much better movie. (Hommages aside, they don’t appear to understand what made it a great movie.)

Anyways, back to our (sigh) story, where Woody and Sad Jim fight the brass to launch a rescue mission in case Luke is still alive. This is an important point. Nobody earthside knows about the alien face, so there’s no “call to adventure” in this mission at all. What passes for drama here is Woody’s argument that Sad Jim should come along on the rescue mission – even though he’s a hollow-eyed zombie of grief. The tough but fair brass gives in, of course.

And now we know why we skipped the first trip to Mars – it’s so we can enjoy seeing married couple Woody and Terri treat the rescue mission like a second honeymoon. They flirt, make-out, and dance in front of horny single guy Phil (Jerry O’Connell) and still grieving widower Jim. Woody and Terri are supposed to be two great people, but their cruelly obtuse behavior makes them come off like a couple of spoiled high school kids who can’t wait to show off how happy they are in front of their less fortunate friends. You know what? I’m with that bitter nameless woman back at the barbecue.

Mission to Mars

Woody & Terri enjoy the trip to Mars

Mission to Mars

Sad Jim enjoys seeing Woody & Terri enjoy the trip to Mars.

Mission to Mars

Horny single guy Phil enjoys peeking up at Terri’s derriere

Turning the rescue mission into a (frankly unbelievable) romantic idyll deflates all dramatic tension from the movie. It was concern for Luke that launched this incredibly expensive mission, but once en-route the crew forgets about him. I’ve already covered Woody and Terri, but the others are just as bad. Phil spends his time building a model of the DNA for his “ideal woman” with floating, zero-gravity M & M’s. -Oh br-ruh-ther. But hey, sex and product placement in one scene, talk about a money shot! Sad Jim, meanwhile, mopes in his room watching painfully phony and sentimental home videos of his dead wife. Usually I’m very sympathetic to grieving widows and widowers, but dear God! I get it. He’s sad his wife died. I get it!!!

Alas, everyone is ripped away from his or her self-absorption by the approach to Mars. Sad for them, but good for the audience, because we finally get some action. In a clever variation on the classic danger suffered by every 1950’s spaceship, we get a barrage of “micro-meteors.” They come as a complete surprise when Phil’s hand is punctured by a small projectile that comes out of nowhere. OK, so it’s a steal from a famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version), but at least it’s a well-done steal. The tiny menaces wreak such harm that the crew must abandon ship and space walk to the safety of an earlier space probe that is still orbiting Mars. This is the movie’s best and most terrifying image – the 4 tiny astronauts “walking” miles above the red surface of Mars – watch this on a big screen and you might get vertigo. Oh, and everyone makes it to the probe but Woody. Who has a long, anguished, and very long death scene. Which is very long. And anguished. And long.

Mission to Mars

The best shot in the movie

Once on the surface we find that Luke is indeed still alive. Surprise! Unfortunately, he’s also slightly insane. So now we have to wait around while the rescue crew talks him back to realty. Finally, almost as an after-thought we return to the astounding discovery of an extra-terrestrial intelligence. Amazingly, our crew of narcissists is kind of interested in this. And what has been a tediously slow journey so far suddenly becomes a miracle of brevity, and the mystery of the alien face is solved in a few short minutes of dialogue. Seems that the mysterious sounds that came out of it during the sandworm storm spell out the code for a very human-like DNA. Sad Jim, inspired by Phil’s M & M’s (product placement!) intuits that this is a test. They then “fix” the DNA code to make it completely human and beam it at the face – and a door opens.

Everyone is very ambivalent about following this up except Sad Jim, who suddenly and miraculously morphs into an adventurous hero. Up to this point he’s only been one part of an ensemble cast, and one who’s shown no interest in anything but his sad memories. But now he firmly declares, “I haven’t come 10 million miles just to turn around at the last 10 feet.” Huh? He came to rescue his friend Luke, which they’ve done. So what’s he talking about?

On never mind. Once inside an admittedly neat hologram room Sad Jim, Sad Terri (remember, she’s just lost a husband) and Sad Luke (he’s sad that his friends are sad) learn the sad fate of ancient Mars. A giant meteor strike turned it into a dead world and a hologram of a tall, graceful Martian steps forward and sheds a tear. Sad Jim and Sad Martian look soulfully at each other and bond: like a puppy with his new master. The hologram lesson continues and we learn that a fleet of Martian ships fled their dying world and traveled to….no, not earth, but to a distant galaxy. A distant galaxy? But – oh never mind, for wait. One ship does go to neighboring earth. And there it….seeds it with Martian DNA? Yes. And thus we get the Cambrian Explosion of complex life that occurred some 530 million years ago. Why didn’t the Martians just colonize earth?… Oh never mind, the nifty hologram lesson isn’t finished yet, and it runs a pretty, if simplified movie showing earth’s evolution up to the appearance of mankind. How does the ancient Martian hologram know just how life evolved on earth?…Oh, never mind.

Mission to Mars

Sad Martian

Well, that was certainly informative. Our astronauts accept it all with the same amount of shock and wonder they’d experience watching a morning news report that butter doesn’t raise one’s cholesterol levels as much as doctors once thought.

And now it’s time for everyone to go home, except for Sad Jim the Explorer. He intuits that a 530 million year old space ship will soon appear to ferry him to that distant galaxy to which the Martians fled. And it does! Interestingly, it has room for exactly one human being. Given this movie’s obsession with sex and marriage, I’m very surprised it isn’t built to accommodate a breeding pair. And now that Sad Terri is single again she’s just as free to go to Martian Valhalla as Sad Jim. But she doesn’t because, I don’t know…widows still belong to their dead husbands? Only men can advance to a higher plane of existence?… Oh never mind. At least Sad Jim’s departure gives us one more chance to wallow in all the pointless tedium of the last 90 minutes as he experiences a rapturous flash-back that culminates with his wife’s face at their wedding ceremony. And the point of that would be?….Oh, never mind. (Writing this it just occurs to me that an interesting climax to the flash-back would be to fade from the dead wife’s face to the Sad Martian’s face. Oh, maybe not. That wouldn’t be nice.)

Sean Ledden (Jan 2009)

Afterthoughts

Dear Lord what a mess. At root, I think it’s because a male director, a bunch of male writers and a whole big bunch of (mostly) male producers tried to turn Mission to Mars into a chick flick and an old fashioned “weepie” movie. Only instead of having Barbara Stanwyck suffering over a lost love, we get Gary Sinese suffering over his dead wife. Yeuck. I can say that without guilt because two of my favorite movies are weepies, Now, Voyager and All that Heaven Allows. But those movies were, cough cough, well made. They knew what they were about, and how to dramatize their story of a heroine’s transformative victory over a closed-in and repressed environment. So when she learns to see herself anew, and works up the courage to walk into a new life, it’s deeply satisfying. (Sob!)

Sinese’s Jim also walks into a new life, but it’s a cheat. Jim is supposed to be the astronaut who’s most dedicated to space travel. But instead of dramatizing this for us the movie merely has his buddies constantly talk about it. All we see is his backward-looking devastation over his wife’s death. And he’s not even the focus of the movie until the last 20 minutes. That honor goes to nice-guy Luke, and even more to the deliciously hot & happy marriage of Woody and Terri. Inspired by the admirable notions that space travel can accommodate black mission leaders and heterosexual marriage, this focus on secondary characters warps the plot all out of shape. This should be Jim’s story, not theirs. And what is his story? Beats the hell out me.

And now, having suffered the gooey, tedious horror that was Mission to Mars, we board an escape pod bound for earth,. and Steven Spielberg’s bleak yet sentimental War of the Worlds. So join me next week for the third and final installment of THE ATTACK OF THE SCI-FI SOAP OPERA SERIAL, and watch, in horror, as obnoxious single dad Tom Cruise bonds with his bratty children….

…IF YOU DARE!

Read more about Mission to Mars at

IMDB

9 comments to Mission To Mars (2000)

  • oneeye

    Ah yes, I remember this movie well. And while the review pretty much nails how slow and boring this movie is, it did serve a purpose. It made Red Planet with Val Kilmer look way better than it would have, had it not been released the same year as Mission to Mars. I wonder if anyone can explain how this snooze-fest got Nasa’s endorsement, as evidenced by the official logo in the film, while the Red Planet movie did not.

  • guts3d

    Nice send up! I remember watching this on DVD with the family and my youngest daughter summed it up well: ” Oh, cheer the hell up! “. It was excruciatingly sad, with a sprinkling of boring tedium to mix it up. I did enjoy the space walk as well. Top notch review, Sean!

  • My son has two movies which he sums up as “This is what the Hollywood-types really believe.” This is one of them. (The other is INDY 4.)

    Overall, I thought it was the stupidest movie I saw that year. We saw it with my sister-in-law who couldn’t believe I didn’t find it uplifting and enthralling. “It had hope. It had positive role models.” My answer: it was all talk, and as the reviewer noted: so light on plot that it could be used on s’mores instead of marshmellows. We don’t learn by a character’s actions. We learn EVERYTHING by what other characters (including the teary-eyed Martian) by what is said or shown.

    That’s bad writing, period.

  • This review makes me feel superior. When this picture came out, I somehow managed to intuit (good word, Mr. Ledden) that the mediocre movie about Mars I had just seen, “Red Planet,” had been better made, so I never went to the lesser. Good for me. Of course, I now have to Netflix the thing only to see the space walk scene on my new giant TV screen, such was the appeal of its description above. Fun review!!

  • Guts3d

    The space walk on the big screen at the local movie multiplex was breathtaking, I wanted to watch it over and over again. I couldn’t find the remote, however. It looks great on my high def tv, but the experience pales in comparison.

  • Sean

    I had the same experience in the movie theater. In fact, that amazing space walk kept me from being pissed off that I spent money to see the movie.

  • Guts3d

    I wonder what the sfx guys that did that are doing to top it? That reminded me of the first shot of the planet Tattooine from “Star Wars”.

  • Gordon

    If anyone knows where to buy one of the Flash Gordon Rocket Necklaces like Woody wore please let me know. Email me at snowcajun@comcast.net Thanks.

  • Guts3d

    https://www.etsy.com/search/jewelry?q=rocket+pendant

    There are a few there. Sean, I think I will fire up the old Blu-Ray player and watch this one tonight!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>