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De Palma's 'Mission': A Rickety Vehicle

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2000


    'Mission to Mars' A crew of American astronauts are on a "Mission to Mars." (Touchstone)
Earth to Brian De Palma: What the heck were you thinking?

Did you even read the script for "Mission to Mars" before you agreed to direct this sci-fi howler about a team of astronauts sent to Mars to rescue a stranded comrade? The press kit from Touchstone Pictures says you did, says you read it in one sitting, in fact, and signed on to direct the very next day.

In fairness, maybe you skipped the page of dialogue that goes something like this: "Don't you see? That's what all this is for. It's what I was born for. I know this is right . . . for me." And that's not Scarlett O'Hara speechifyin' on the front porch of Tara, but Gary Sinise as hotdog space cowboy Jim McConnell, co-commander of the rescue mission. Okay, his treacly soliloquy does come really close to the end of the film's sluggish two hours. Maybe a few pages were stuck together and you thought you were at the end. I know there were at least a couple of people at the screening I saw who wished they were at the end 10 minutes before closing credits.

Or maybe that part of the screenplay just hadn't been written yet, and the writers (Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost) figured no one would notice if they lifted lines from every other cheesy melodrama ever written. The story – a pastiche of "Armageddon," "Brigadoon," "E.T.," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Robinson Crusoe," "Apollo 13" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" (just the bad parts) – certainly has that expensive but cobbled-together look.

This is the story (and stop me if you've heard it before): NASA sends a crew of four to Mars, where, while investigating what the press kit calls an anomaly (as in, "Watch out, don't step in the anomaly!"), something goes horribly wrong, leaving one man left alive (Don Cheadle as Luke Graham). Luke manages to send a garbled S.O.S to the mothership a gajillion miles away, where, against the better judgment of his commanding officer (not surprisingly, an uncredited Armin Muehler-Stahl), Jimbo saddles up the rocket along with Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen) and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell) to go rescue Luke and put the kibosh on this anomaly. On the way there (and it takes a loooonnng six months to get there), even more things go horribly, horribly wrong, except trust me, they don't seem all that horrible, at least not in the way they're supposed to.

For an adventure film, "M2M" is shockingly slack in the tension department. Even the most calamitous roadblocks are treated like business as usual to the sleepwalking crew. How are we supposed to care whether the ship is leaking oxygen and fuel and must be abandoned in deep space when Sinise and company treat it like a flat tire on a quiet country road? Furthermore, despite the film's much-touted faithfulness to scientific accuracy, there are unanswered questions everywhere you look in this confusing jumble of fact, fiction, new-age mysticism and dime-store ufology.

A word about the film's visuals: The dominant color motif alternates between spaceship gray and Martian red (British Columbia sand dunes spray-painted the color of dull brick), making for one of the least picturesque forays into outer space ever. But the biggest disappointment is De Palma himself, whose trademark dexterity with the camera is manifested primarily in shots that rotate 360 degrees, over and over again, in evocation of the disorientating effects of zero gravity.

I'm not sure if it was that or the cloying script, but after a couple of hours of spinning around listening to this drivel I felt like I was going to barf.

MISSION TO MARS (PG, 113 minutes) – Contains intense moments of dread in the face of horrible anomalies and space emergencies.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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