Brian De Palma Month: “Mission to Mars”

It’s high time we looked at a less-than-stellar (i.e. sucky) film from the man of the month.  Brian De Palma definitely brought us some classics, but every director has his bad day.  We have so much sludge to squelch through, so let’s get going.

Mission to Mars is directed by Brian De Palma and written by: Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas, John Thomas, and Graham Yost.  Stars-Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Tim Robbins, Connie Neilson, and Jerry O’Connell.  Premise-While excavating, Astronaut Luke Graham (Cheadle) is left wounded and alone after a brutal sandstorm kills his partners on the abandoned planet, Mars.  Upon receiving a distorted distress signal, a recovery team led by Jim McConnell (Sinise) is sent to Mars to find Graham, as well as the reason for the freak storm.

I said I wouldn’t do spoilers for Brian De Palma month, but that was before I watched this unholy mess of a movie.  There is no way for me to accurately review this movie without spoiling anything.  Most of the time, when I do a spoiler review, it’s because I don’t want people to waste their time with it (like I did with Alice Through the Looking Glass).  It’s not like anyone is going out of their way to watch this thing anyway.

This movie opens with an extended tracking shot (a la Snake Eyes) that introduces us to all the main characters.  Only, this shot is 6 minutes long, filled with exposition instead of clever set ups, awkwardly acted, boringly slow, and really cheesy.  That’s one of the things you’ll notice about Mission to Mars, for a De Palma film, it is sickly positive at times.  I’m not one to tell an artist how they should make their work, but he is at his best when his movies are psychological, dark, Hitchcockian-like thrillers.  Apparently, De Palma was hired after the original director left over budget issues.  What I’m getting at is that this movie feels like it could have been directed by anyone, if the director wanted to disown this movie (like David Fincher did with Alien 3) he could have.  This change in style feels like if Stanley Kubrick directed Dumb and Dumber.

The writing of this movie is the worst thing about it.  The dialogue is composed of 50% exposition, 30% sci-fi nonsense, and 20% of actual character.  We have an excellent cast here, but there is so little for them to work with.  The movie tries to have emotional moments, but they spent so little time making me like these characters.  In addition, the first two acts of this movie are booooooooring!  After the sentient storm, which looks like the worm from Dune if it was made of red sand, kills Cheadle’s team, the writers decided that a rescue mission doesn’t create enough tension, so they pull one of the most pointless plot tangents of all time…are you ready for it?

Sinise, Robbins, Nielson, and O’Connell are almost to Mars (during one of the few scenes of actual character development) when some random asteroids tear a few holes in their ship.  What follows is an overly drawn-out sequence of “Get that hole sealed!  Put on your suit!  Arbitrarily twist some wires!”  The day is saved when Connie Nielsen uses a Dr. Pepper product placement to find the hole in the ship.  Robbins (who is her husband in the movie) seals the ship from the outside and all seems well.  That is until they actually try to land on Mars.  The engines go complete bust (creating a moment of unintentional belly laughing I might add), and they are stranded in space.  Their solution?  Exit the ship in their suits, form a straight line and maintain velocity, find a spaceship-station thing (who cares?), shoot and attach a tow-cable to it, and use that ship to land on Mars.  Here’s one of the scenes that critics actually like, Robbins has to be the one to attach the cable, but he over shoots it and in the process of securing the cable, loses his grip on the ship and floats away.  There are then three fake-out attempts to save him until he sacrifices himself (by taking off his helmet, freezing instantly) to stop his wife from risking her life to save him.

That took one overweight paragraph to explain.  Guess how much time they waste on that?  Thirty fricking minutes!  That is literally one-fourth of this movie’s gratuitous runtime!  Sure, the F/X in those 30 minutes was great, but all that was accomplished was a dead Tim Robbins (who gave the best performance in the movie).  By the time they land on Mars, I forgot why they were going there in the first place.

If you thought that a 30 minute roadblock was the worst thing about this movie, strap in because now we’re getting to the crème de la crap.  Mission to Mars takes the “fiction” part of “science-fiction” to a whole new level.  For one, the gravity of Mars is never consistent.  Mars gravity compared to Earth gravity is about 38% to 100% (100 pounds on Earth is 38 pounds on Mars), but there are some scenes where the characters are jumping around like they’re on the moon, some scenes they are dragging stuff like it was Earth’s gravity, and some scenes do a mixture of the two.

Ok, here it is, the moment we’ve all been waiting for… the ending.  After finding Cheadle in a crazed state, they learn that what caused the storm was sending in the incorrect code.  Ya see, Cheadle’s team found a structure on Mars, their machines showed signs of water inside of a mountain.  As it turns out, that mountain contained the last remaining Martian alien and its ship.  When their machines scanned the structure, the alien mistook it for a response to a code.  The alien has been transmitting half of a genetic code to the team.  In order for the alien to know that they are human, they have to “fill in the blanks” to the code (when finished, the code creates a strand of DNA).  With the help of Cheadle’s research (and a callback to a stupid scene involving M&M’s), Sinise finishes the code and they are allowed to enter the structure.  What follows has got to go down in history as something only post-Signs M. Night Shyamalan could have barfed up.  The alien (whose CGI looks abhorrent) shows the team what really happened.  *I’m struggling not to laugh while I type this*  Millions of years ago, these Martians lived on a planet with a very similar structure as Earth until a fiery asteroid crashed into their planet, turning it into an uninhabitable wasteland.  When all of the Martians left to find another home, one stayed behind, and a few strands of DNA were sent to our Earth.  From those strands, the whole evolutionary system was made, lizards evolved into dinosaurs, and so on.

Did all of that sound confusing to you?  Let me tell ya, nothing in the world could have prepared me for that reveal!  I can’t believe the amount of wrong that is in this ending.  How were humans created?  Why can’t the alien talk?  Where did the asteroid come from?  How did it turn an entire planet to red rocks?  Why does this alien look worse than the F/X in The Lawnmower Man?  Guys, when I saw this, I couldn’t stop laughing.  Never before have I seen a science-fiction movie try so hard but try so little at the same time.  The first two acts of the movie were boring and underwhelming, all of a sudden, the writers want to tell me that freaking Martians are responsible for Earth as we know it today (or in 2020, when this movie takes place)?  As a Christian, this doesn’t offend me, it’s too stupid to do so.  As a guy with common sense, this makes me feel like no one was really trying with this movie.  I can’t do this anymore, end the review.

Mars movies aren’t usually associated with quality.  With the exceptions of the original Total Recall (1990) and The Martian, movies set on the red planet typically suck.  Heck, John Carpenter (Ghosts of Mars) and Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!) couldn’t quite do it justice.  Even Red Planet came out the same year as Mission to Mars; clearly Hollywood was in a rough spot.  In the end, Brian did his best with what he had (and what little time), but the result is pure trash, with the occasional nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It’s a shame, his career never fully recovered after this bomb.  Mission to Mars gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a D.

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