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Weekly Alibi Houston, We Have a Problem

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 20, 2000:  NASA's had a bit of a public relations problem lately. After the spectacular success of that cool Mars Rover deal, the government agency has done little more than blow up a series of expensive satellites, send Martian probes into bottomless pits and clean up after a host of bankrupt countries on the international space station debacle. In fact, the only good press NASA has gotten lately has been from the movies. If it wasn't for NASA lending out its name and logo to dozens of Hollywood studios, the agency wouldn't have launched a single successful mission in years. Remember when those brave astronauts went up into space and blew up that giant asteroid? Wasn't that a proud moment?

The latest sci-fi epic to receive the NASA stamp of approval, Mission to Mars, is so packed with gung-ho, flag-waving, teary-eyed moments, in fact, that it might as well have been written as a recruitment film by a team of government flacks. Unfortunately, it was written by a couple of Hollywood screenwriters. More's the pity.

Mission to Mars, as clearly stated in the title, follows a space mission to the legendary fourth rock from the sun. Three lifelong friends -- Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) -- have been vying for the opportunity to become the first man on Mars. When push comes to shove, though, Graham -- who literally wrote the book on Martian colonization -- gets the golden ticket.

Following a brief round of misty-eyed character introductions (McConnell's wife is dead, so he's sad), Graham leads his expedition to the Red Planet, leaving his two pals behind. Unfortunately (at least for Graham), the expedition ends in tragedy. While exploring a mysterious mountaintop, the crew is attacked by a serpentine whirlwind of Martian sand which sucks up the astronauts like a giant Hoover. Graham survives long enough to get off one cryptic message to Earth before losing all communications. Naturally, Graham's pals McConnell and Blake lobby NASA for a rescue mission -- a request which is, rather illogically, granted. In the real world, it's unlikely that NASA would risk the lives of four astronauts in a year-long rescue mission to find one single astronaut who might possibly have survived 12 months on a planet with no food or oxygen. But this is Hollywood, and such a scenario is charitably dubbed "a plot."

We can't fault Mission to Mars for false advertising. The title is fairly clear, so viewers shouldn't be all that surprised to find that some 75 percent of M2M's curiously unengaging run-time is taken up by the title task. The filmmakers are quite pleased with their NASA connections and squander vast amounts of time dealing with the minutia of space travel. McConnell and Blake, along with their crew (Connie Neilsen, doing an uncanny imitation of Janine Turner, and Jerry O'Connell, late of "Sliders") wrestle mostly with the trials and tribulations of crossing the vast oceans of empty space that are our solar system.

Director Brian De Palma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Mission: Impossible) certainly seems happy to be working in the science fiction genre for the first time. He revels in every spacey vista and every zero-g pas de deux (one to the tune of Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away" even!). Unfortunately, the thriller helmer fails to inject much energy into the film's airless void. At one point, for example, the rescue ship is crippled by a storm of micro-meteorites. Compare this low-watt sequence to the same events as depicted in the slam-bang adrenaline-surging opening of Pitch Black, and you'll see a major portion of the problem with Mission to Mars. Pitch Black has a herd of microscopic bullets pinging around the inside of spacebound tin can: Crewmembers are screaming, people are dying, the ship is shaking apart, the camera jitters like a Chihuahua on crystal meth. Mission to Mars has got Tim Robbins floating around in slow-mo with a hot glue gun.

Make no mistake: Mission to Mars looks great. It feels great. The acting ain't too shabby. But the film fails to make good on its initial promise to the audience. We're told that a crew of astronauts has been killed on Mars after encountering a strange artifact of alien construct. Cool! Instead of cutting to the chase and telling us what the deal is, however, Mission to Mars dawdles in deep space for an hour or so before remembering that we all came here to solve a mystery. In the film's final reel, we finally get to Mars and go after that strange alien artifact. Sadly, the low-key pay-off is hardly worth the long wait.

Even if the TV commercials didn't spell out exactly what the big mystery is, a reasonably intelligent stinkbug could deduce what the "surprise ending" is going to be. The reason is simple: The moments in Mission to Mars that do work are liberally lifted from a host of sci-fi films before it. All the feel-good moments of Close Encounters, 2010, Contact and Armageddon have been boosted in their entirety and shoehorned into this meticulously synthesized special effects vehicle. In fact, astute connoisseurs of movie cheese will recognize the entire film as a remake of the 1959 z-grade flick Angry Red Planet (minus -- sadly -- the giant rat-bat-spider monster).

So NASA: in the future, instead of relying on Hollywood for PR props, why not just build another cute little robot and land it on Uranus?

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