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The universe is not chaos. It’s connection.

Mission to Mars

(SPOILERS) The history of duelling Hollywood projects has tended to see one clear winner, invariably the one with the head start. Dangerous Liaisons was a critical, commercial and Academy Awards hit; Valmont was none of those things. Tombstone was a surprise success, Wyatt Earp a prize turkey. Dante’s Peak cleared up more than Volcano. In the cases of Deep Impact and Armageddon, though, both did very well, but Armageddon did better. And then, when it came to Mission to Mars and Red Planet, neither did well, but Red Planet did worse. What was it that fuelled such assumed Mars appeal at the turn of the millennium?

McConnell: We’re a million miles from Earth inside a giant white face. What’s impossible?

The germ was likely the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft that allegedly landed a probe on Mars in 1997. You know, the same Mars surface they film in Australia. Or Jordan. Or Devon Island, Canada. And the very probe found by our intrepid Mars team in Red Planet. Except that one’s a work of fiction, obviously. Lately, we’ve had talk of “returning” to the Moon (delayed). And Elon Musk, purveyor of an entirely believable Tesla car in space, is planning to “get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness”. Why, he sounds almost, well, spiritual, and barely at all space mission-y, doesn’t he? Maybe Elon’s been hitting the bong again. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

Just because Hollywood galvanises itself to sell the lie, doesn’t mean audiences will lap it up, of course. Not because they’re incredulous, but more likely because the pill isn’t coated in a sufficiently sugary fashion, be that suitable stars (Tim Robbins, Val Kilmer) or theme (terraforming/eco-warning, or extra-terrestrial ancestors). A decade and a half later, with Matt Damon stranded on Mars, surviving off food he has grown while NASA Mission Control mounts a rescue operation, you have a huge hit. Strand Don Cheadle on Mars, surviving off food he has grown while NASA Mission Control mounts a rescue operation, and audiences (for the most part) don’t want to know.

What Mission to Mars is also doing is the “seeded from the stars” narrative, one primed audiences would later respond to in Prometheus (but there with a savage twist). Here, the propagation is entirely benign, by way of promoting a catastrophism-prone universe; this is preceded by a ship-bound disaster, to let us know the universe is a cold and dangerous place, what with all those bits of stuff flying around at super speeds. Why, it’s a miracle NASA and co have remained aloft for so long without a terminal breach! In Mars’ case, an asteroid hit – you know, one of those large objects we’re told could strike us with impunity any time. That is, if we don’t destroy the planet through Greta-esque wanton consumption first – and the somewhat Grey-esque (based on sculptures by Constantin Brâncusi) aliens. It turns out we share most of our DNA with these advanced beings (another goal for science; good old DNA, it answers all our questions, why it’s tantamount to God!) These aliens decided, jolly obligingly, to spark life on Earth. You see? No need for pesky God.

Albeit, despite such justified cynicism, both Mission to Mars and Red Planet forward a philosophical-spiritual bent at the expense of hard science. Or appear to. Really, however, by stressing the emotional attachments of Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), and his quest for answers – by tagging along with the Martians to their new digs; De Palma thus following in the moon boot steps of Spielberg, sending Richard Dreyfus to the stars in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only this time without any regrettable familial attachments – they’re underpinning the legitimate, scientific, NASA-touted, freemasonically prescribed universe as an unquestionable fact. That way, critics will tush at all the von Däniken – and Richard Hoagland-ian, Face on Mars – nonsense but never once debate the merits of the Mars we’re told about, the one that looks for all the world like a patch of arid desert no one but film crews would wish to frequent.

It’s very easy, and cheap, to apply a red filter and sell a quarry as Mars. If you’ve got After Effects, you don’t even need to go to Capricorn One’s lengths of building a set (it’s impossible to watch the flag-raising scene here without thinking of Peter Hyams’ movie). We’ve got some pretty fancy space tech on display too; maybe this seemed remotely plausible at the time, for a movie set between 2020 and 2022 (Mission to Mars begins on June 9 2020, jumps thirteen months, presumably to September 2021, and then some months later still, arrives in 2022).

There’s a World Space Station (because, if you’re selling space, it may as well be global space, with everyone in on it), and the means of space travel is about as convincing as your average Bezos and Branson/Shatner flight. Actually no, it all looks pretty great, courtesy of De Palma’s unswerving eye (that he was nominated for a Razzie is the height of absurdity). Rudolf Steiner was wont to claim the planets were partially physical realms and partially spheres of existence, although it may be his information wasn’t the full unvarnished (he also suggested the shape of the Earth was that of a squashed quadrilateral…) This, however, is entirely materialist science’s definition of the universe, so the most “cosmic” we’re going to get in terms of planes of existence are the virtual realms the Martians proffer inside their big giant head. Where it’s very white (and so very Kubrick), except when we’re being treated to an interactive holographic re-enactment of the history of the Red Planet.

I should be clear that I don’t regard Mission to Mars as a great movie, but I also think it’s a long way from being the disaster some make out. It’s certainly true that the screenplay, from Jim and John Thomas (Predator) and Graham Yost (NASA propaganda series From The Earth to the Moon, endorsed by Guantanamo Hanks, Speed, Justified) leaves a lot to be desired, most unforgivingly so in the dialogue department. It’s also the case that, at times, De Palma indulges melodramatic devices that might play when twinned with the overblown, lurid horror trappings of Dressed to Kill or Carrie, but are borderline risible here. So McConnell’s flashback montage of touching life moments – touching life moments we’ve seen earlier in the movie – is a real choker of sentimental hogwash, entirely unearned, corny and dispiritingly amateurish with it.

Ennio Morricone’s score is also a poor fit in that regard, mining precisely the wrong tone. I’m a huge Morricone fan, but indulging his achingly heartfelt side emphasises the strand of the picture you’d rather was eased down a notch, since it’s already in treacherous territory anyway.

Other issues relate to the casting. You absolutely must have a must-see concept if you’re going to run with a cast like this, particularly if audiences are working on the assumption that Robbins is the lead, since no one loves Robbins unless it’s in The Shawshank Redemption. Even knowing he gets killed off at the end of the first act is no kind of compensation. And Sinise is fine, but he seems uncomfortable throughout, saddled with a haircut that tries to soften him for leading man duties when he’s much more suited to wired intensity or vague distrustfulness (De Palma’s previous, Snake Eyes).

Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O’Connell are all fine, but with a screenplay like this, you really need actors who are going to make more of their roles than is on the page, and only Cheadle gets anywhere near that (Kim Delaney attempts a Russian accent during the first act, but she mercifully doesn’t last long). There’s a zero-G dance early on between Robbins and Nielsen that’s supposed to be… I don’t know… inspiring, I guess… but instead feels like it’s trying too hard.

On the other hand, De Palma delivers some terrific, classically styled suspense from the point where “micrometeoroids” breach the ship to Robbins’ Woody Blake realising he doesn’t have enough fuel to make it back to the resupply module.

The visual effects, split between about five FX houses including ILM, are mostly very good, and if De Palma isn’t the first person you’d think of for science fiction (any more than for The Untouchables’ undiluted sincerity), he proves a surprisingly good fit. Albeit, as noted, the material’s essential optimism needed to be downplayed so as not to become turgid. The aliens offer nothing new, and precede Spielberg’s also-spindly types in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but if the major beef most have with the movie is the von Däniken detour it takes… well, it is what it is. And there are nevertheless some quality visuals in these later scenes (as noted, the bleached-out interior and virtual starscapes); Stephen H Burum, in his final De Palma collaboration – perhaps that’s where the director subsequently went wrong – ensures the picture is as polished as you’d expect.

McConnell: They seeded Earth. They’re us. We’re them.

Mission to Mars might be seen as the real turning point in the De Palma’s fortunes, having coasted, give or take, on a more commercial wave since Scarface. Sure, The Bonfire of the Vanities was catastrophic, but his ability to deliver commercial fare wasn’t in doubt, and Mission: Impossible should, in theory, have set him up comfortably for another decade. Instead, he squandered the goodwill with back-to-back failures in Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars, and made Femme Fatale, one of his smaller projects but with a budget much too high to justify the conceit. The Black Dahlia was the final nail in the coffin, suffering in the casting department – like Mission to Mars – and failing to find a way to successfully navigate the James Ellroy source material (perhaps Tinseltown should try Steve Hodel’s take next). Mission to Mars cost $100m and made $111m, and the budget is all on screen. If it satisfies no one – the NASA propaganda merchants, the ancient-aliens fans, the De Palma acolytes – it’s still a more interesting failure than most other mainstream filmmakers could have mustered.

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