Mission to Mars

"I'd have to say April 25th."

If Mission to Mars isn’t the year’s most critically lambasted film to date then it’s tied for whatever is first. The critics really let it rip on this one. No invective was too strong, no crack too sarcastic, no attack to cruel. Almost every person I have talked to, professionally and otherwise, has hated this movie. I hereby declare them all wrong. Mission to Mars is a film that requires a couple steps into suspension of disbelief and a willingness to embrace the sentimental. Cynicism must be left at the door. It has no place in Brian De Palma’s magical space adventure.

A couple of decades in the future, a group of astronauts, commandeered by one Luke Graham (Don Cheadle (Out of Sight, Bulworth), are sent on the first manned mission to Mars. Luke bravely leads his team across the perilous terrain of the red planet. Their equipment seems to be working properly and they have made some spectacular findings about the possibility of water on Mars until a mysterious force emerges from one of Mars’s mountains and kills all but Luke.

Officer Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), still recovering from the loss of his beloved wife, heads the rescue mission. Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen) and Phil Ohmyer (Jerry O’Connell) are his crew. Problems start even before they can land on Mars. There is an explosion on the ship and, in a spectacular sequence, they are forced to evacuate and literally board a separate shuttle as it heads towards Mars. Unfortunately, the advertisements for the movie pretty much reveal what happens when they get there, but I’ll withhold that information here for the sake of those who might have avoided the ads. I envy you.

Mission to Mars‘s production values are probably the film’s main selling point and they are spectacular. The spacewalk scene, in particular, rivals any recent special effects display. A scene like that in a lesser movie would have had that phony, pasted-on feel, but here, it manages to be fully convincing. And when, in its climactic scenes, the film becomes almost fully dependent on the effects, the result is truly awesome.

Many people have criticized this movie for the dialogue. It was corny, they said. The dead wife subplot was unnecessary. Much like What Dreams May Come a few years back, Mission to Mars is being unfairly chastised by people who have misunderstood it. De Palma is not trying to make a thriller here. His mission is to blend an old-fashioned, sentimental plot and script with top-of-the-notch special effects into a pleasing, stirring, affecting science fiction concoction.

It works. By the end of the movie, my heart was racing, my imagination was running amok and I barely felt the two hours pass by. The film’s main concept, which I won’t reveal, is genius; in fact, if Mission to Mars has a flaw, it’s failing to explore it to the fullest. Still, it is far from ambiguous but it also leaves plenty to the imagination. Writer Jim Thomas leaves the ending open for a sequel, though with all the whining going on the prospect seems unlikely.

The film has also fallen victim to ludicrously unfair comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Why would anyone, no matter how much they may hate the movie, belittle it by comparing it to Kubrick’s masterpiece? They have very little in common. Mission to Mars is a grandiose, imaginative popcorn movie, resembling Close Encounters of the Third Kind in style and feel. It’s enough to make my heart swell with joy. And I don’t care what anyone else says.

-- Eugene Novikov

One Comment

  1. raymond says:

    Hey! I loved it. Yeah, it was a bit slow to get started. It’s called an introduction, where you get to learn all the characters. Take me on the alien spaceship! Did you hear that great music? How about a sequel where we find out where (Gary) went. You could make an interesting movie out of that. Hmmm, Mars II.

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