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We Have a Problem, Houston
'Mission to Mars' Is Definitely in Outer Space

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2000


    'Mission to Mars' A crew of American astronauts are on a "Mission to Mars." (Touchstone)
The Right Stuff: Stanley Kubrick had it, Steven Spielberg has it, but Brian De Palma . . . well, let's just say, he has the Slight Stuff. He is a filmmaker with a plan--usually somebody else's--but without a vision. Does this man have a damn thing to say?

His shortcomings have never been more obvious than in "Mission to Mars." This cheesy clunker leads one to believe that for De Palma, space is not the final frontier, it's just something between your front teeth. He reaches for the stars, yes, but remains blind to their glitter.

The story, which turns on the first manned flight to the Red Planet, follows the trajectory of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Kubrick's seminal epic floated into the void as effortlessly as an escaping balloon. "Mission," however, grunts and groans but can't even heave itself off the launching pad.

The year is 2020, but so little has changed that it might as well be here and now. Fashions, lifestyles, architecture remain the same. The major technological advance of the past couple of decades: the square Coke can. Humankind, trendy race that it once was, has become frozen in time.

Half the fun of science fiction, however, is in going where no one has gone before, preferably in a craft powered by dilithium crystals and piloted by prime-directive-defying rocket jocks. The spaceship crews tend to be a blah bunch and their craft, a wheel within a wheel trailing a string of globes, is a knockoff of "2001's" flying shish kebab.

"Mission" opens at a pre-launch party in honor of Cmdr. Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), due to ship out the next morning. Though he and his crew are about to make another giant leap for mankind, Graham shows little anxiety or anticipation. His son needs reassuring and his wife wears a brave mask, but his closest friends and colleagues, Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), act so nonchalant you'd think Luke was just going to the Quickie Mart to pick up a six-pack of square Coke.

Graham and his team arrive on Mars without a hitch (curiously, there is no media coverage of this event, no nail-biting buildup at Mission Control, not even a scene devoted to the landing). The story catches up with the explorers when they inadvertently tick off some mysterious force, a Big Giant Head implanted on the Martian surface.

Graham manages to send a final cryptic message back to Mars Mission Control on the World Space Station.

Though the party is presumed dead, NASA launches a rescue mission co-piloted by Blake and McConnell. Accompanied by Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell), a sharp-witted young scientist, and Dr. Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), Blake's astronaut-wife, they set off on a slackly plotted, sloppily paced and uneventful voyage of rescue.

As entertainment, the movie offers McConnell mooning over home movies of his late wife, Blake and the missus doing the tango in zero-gravity, and the scientist Ohlmyer using M&M's to replicate a strand of DNA. No sir, this is not just product placement: Those M&M's will be as crucial to the plot of "Mission to Mars" as the Reese's Pieces were to "E.T." Yes, candy is the key to cosmic truth.

The tale becomes ever loopier when the filmmakers try to make this load of hooey pay off. It's as if co-scripters Jim and John Thomas ("Predator") and Graham Yost ("Speed") suddenly realized that we've come all this way, so something ought to happen. Cribbing from Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and Kubrick again, they hatch up a mawkish finale that had a preview audience hooting in laughter. The actors all appeared to be thinking, "Where is my agent? I'm going to kill the bastard."

De Palma claims he wanted to avoid science fiction cliches, but he rehashes the tired pseudo-metaphysics of "Contact," "The Abyss" and "The Sphere." Where more innovative works introduced us to Wookiees and slobbering aliens and weird new worlds, De Palma merely takes us one small step backward.

MISSION TO MARS (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for language.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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