Mission to Mars
by Jason Morrison
There are a lot of things to have faith in. God. Fate. The stock market. Up until I saw Mission to Mars, I had faith that a film project that consulted real experts on the subject (Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society) and worked closely with the professionals (NASA) would be at least plausible. It might be boring, it might have unrealistic dialogue, it might have bad acting, directing, or even a crappy musical score. But at least it would not descend into pointlessly ludicrous cheese. I was wrong.
I can't possibly avoid giving away something about the end of the movie, though if you've seen the trailers this will be no surprise. We do indeed see a Martian. And it's ridiculous. Whatever other merits or problems this film may have, it all boils down to the scene where some of our intrepid astronauts meet the Martian. The crappiest-looking alien since Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. A computer-generated cartoon even more annoying than the hairy beastie in those Honeycomb Cereal commercials. I mean, they could have substituted any one of the Pokemon and improved the movie ten times. If the Martian had turned up to be ALF himself, Mission to Mars would be twice again as good.
It's a shame, too, because most of the movie isn't half bad, up until that point. Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) is leading NASA's first manned Mars mission after mission expert Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) washes out, grieving for his recently-deceased wife. Graham and his crew arrive safely and begin to happily study the red planet from their base. When they come across a crystal structure on top of a mountain, they think they may have found ice and march off to take a closer look. Upon bombarding the mountain with radar, a vicious and intelligent storm attacks, leaving everyone dead except Graham.
McConnell and the crew of the second Mars mission, Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), his wife Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), and young Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell) hear about all this from earth orbit. There's no time to spare-they have to get in space and rescue Graham.
As the ship cruises toward Mars, things start to go wrong. A micrometeor shower punctures the ship and Ohlmyer's hand and the crew has to patch the leaks and get the computers back online before they run out of atmosphere. Problem solved (thanks in part to Dr Pepper), they prepare to land on Mars, only to lose half their ship in a fuel explosion. About to burn up in the thin Martian atmosphere, they attempt to hijack an orbiting supply trip for the ride down. Low on propellant, Blake ends up sacrificing himself to get the three into the landing ship (with parts to repair Graham's ship) safely.
They get to the planet and meet Graham, who has miraculously survived. The storm, he says, revealed a strange artifact and has given them a puzzle. They solve it in about ten seconds and are soon rubbing shoulders with the most poorly implemented extra-terrestrial since Mac and Me.
Not a bad story, up until the aliens. Think of Apollo 13, substantially watered down. But even without the second-rate CD-ROM alien, the film is flawed by a dedication to making the obvious even more obvious. The omnipresent computer displays, while nice and futuristic-looking, also serve to spell out exactly what's going on at any point to the audience. As Fisher tries to rescue Blake, we already know she is almost out of fuel. One would think both Blake and McConnell yelling at her to turn back would already be redundant. But just in case anyone in the theater was still wondering, the computer display not only shows us the dropping fuel tank, but flashes a helpful "point of no return" as she pauses. At another point one astronaut reads his computer (which we see on screen), "70 percent Nitrogen, 30 percent Oxygen." Helpfully, a second astronaut lets us all know, "otherwise known as air." Ohhh! That's right! They did cover that at astronaut school, after all!
Add to that Brian De Palma's generally ineffective direction. Some of the scenes had the potential for real tension, but the camera never really takes advantage of it. The astronauts are incessantly shot in close-up denying us any of the majesty of Mars or the cold isolation of space. For this film, four characters adrift in the infinite with just a thin bubble of air protecting them has the same ambiance as a back-yard barbecue.
Mission to Mars is a colossal disappointment. Whereas "2001" (which it borrows from heavily) made the discovery of non-human intelligence mysterious and spiritual, this film explains the whole thing with the artistic sensibilities of a screen saver. Even Space Camp, which had plenty unlikely silly bits, managed to make disaster in space seem a bit more immediate and a bit more chilling. Every time anything goes wrong in Mission to Mars, the astronauts spend a few minutes just staring at it. Giant tornado hurling rocks into the sky 10 feet in front of you? Stare at it! Ship exploding? Take your time!
But if you walk into a theater and see Mission to Mars playing, I suggest you run.
(Out of five)