Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mission to Mars (2000)

This NASA landing may have been faked on a California soundstage
In an interview accompanying Criterion's recent release of Brian De Palma's 1981 masterpiece Blow Out, his ex-wife and frequent collaborator Nancy Allen describes the consequences of casting John Travolta in that film.  The three had all greatly enjoyed working together on Carrie, and Travolta was eager to work with Allen and De Palma again.  But between Carrie and Blow Out, he'd gone from being John Travolta, star of TV's Welcome Back Kotter, to John Travolta, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, thanks to Grease and Saturday Night Fever.  Consequently, what had been written as a small political thriller, was now going to be marketed as a major summer thrill-ride.  This meant the script had to be adjusted to include large-scale chases and set-pieces.  While the end result is thrilling, Allen reports with amusement that the process of filming the "big" scenes bored and frustrated De Palma to no end.  It all detracted from the story he wanted to tell and the stylistic flourishes that had so defined his early career.

I couldn't help thinking about that anecdote as I watched 2000's Mission to Mars, a movie so utterly anonymous it might as well have been scrawled on a bathroom wall.  It certainly seems that De Palma hasn't changed nearly as much as his films have, because his boredom with the film's big set-pieces and special effects bleeds into every frame.

Sinise, Robbins and Cheadle make plans to meet on Mars
While I was never bored watching this film, I was certainly frustrated.  The biggest problem is that there are three different stories here, any one of which could have easily and comfortably filled a two-hour film.  After a much too long scene introducing our cast on Earth, we jump to Mars, where Luke (Don Cheadle) is part of the first manned mission to the red planet, setting up a semi-permanent base.  Shortly after their arrival, the team follows strange readings to a giant structure.  There they're attacked by what appears to be a sentient sand-storm made up entirely out of leftover special effects from Brendan Frasier's Mummy film. 

This is the first plot of the movie.  Here we're asked to get invested in the mystery of the "face" on Mars and all of its CGI shenanigans.  This plot ranged from mildly interesting at best, to eye-rollingly silly at worst.

NASA discovers signs of crappy CGI on Mars
Once mission control loses contact with the Mars team, a rescue mission is planned.  Husband and wife astronaut team Woody and Terri (Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen) are joined by Gary Sinise as Jim, or should I say Ken, since he seems to be virtually reprising his role from Apollo 13 (up to and including the fact that he was supposed to have led the first mission to Mars, but was taken off of mission-ready status prior to launch).  The crew is rounded out by Jerry O'Connell as mission specialist Phil Ohlmeyer, in the most spectacular bit of mis-casting since we were asked to buy Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough

This quartet's trip to Mars is, by a very wide margin, the most compelling part of the film.  Once the film focuses on the very real dangers faced by any travel across our solar system it finally gets some life to it.  A shower of tiny asteroids damages the ship, and the crew must go to great lengths to repair their vessel and secure a safe landing on the planet's surface.  Here the special effects don't over-reach themselves, the trials and solutions all seem broadly plausible, and so real tension is generated by their plight.

This sequence could have been much better however, if it had been its own movie.  It's very hard to get invested in what is largely a very realistic portrayal of near-future space travel after we've already paid a visit to the goofiness on the surface of Mars.  These scenes simply don't belong to the same reality.

Mission to Mars does itself no favors by inviting comparisons to 2001
Once on Mars, the team is re-united with Luke.  The story of how he survived by himself on the planet's surface for several months is brushed aside with a handful of comments, but here we have a third story that is frankly far more interesting than the mystery of the giant "face".  I could definitely have enjoyed Don Cheadle in a modernization of Robinson Crusoe on Mars.  But instead, and unfortunately, the remainder of the film is devoted to unlocking the secrets of a long-lost alien civilization.  Here the movie's tether to reality snaps, the proceedings grow increasingly ludicrous, and the audience's patience is stretched to its limit.

There's simply no way to close this discussion without remaking upon the product placement in this film.  It is, quite frankly, as blatant and disgusting as any I've ever been witness to.  At one point, I kid you not, the lives of the entire crew are saved by a package of Dr. Pepper.  Afterwards, the soda's package spins lazily in the zero gravity in a shot that begs for a voice-over extolling the drink's virtues.  Later, the key to unraveling the mysteries of the Martian surface is a package of M&M's, which we're told one astronaut considers an absolute necessity wherever he goes.  Suddenly it's all so clear.  What was Mission to Mars about?  It was about getting paid.

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