Mission to Mars

Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring: Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, Tim Robbins, Armin Mueller-Stahl.
MPAA Rating: PG for sci-fi violence and mild language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
March 12, 2000

In my last review, for The Ninth Gate, and in some of my other recent reviews, I have been talking about how established directors have been on the decline. Practically all of the really good films being made these days are from new talent, even those making their debuts. For Brian De Palma, his contribution to this trend is the first intended "blockbuster" of the year. A massive budget, an impressive cast, and a science fiction hook are all working together to keep him from joining his unlucky peers. Alas, it is all in vain.

In the year 2020, the first manned mission to Mars begins, with Luc Goddard (Don Cheadle) to lead a group of four to the planet's surface. The position was originally meant for Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), but the untimely death of his wife caused him to fall behind in the rotation. Jim watches from the World Space Station in Earth orbit as Luc's crew lands and explores Mars, but then they receive a distress call. A strange storm/earthquake/monster has killed all three of Luc's crewmembers, and his survival seems impossible.

Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) is assigned to lead a rescue mission, with his first-mate/wife Terri (Connie Nielsen) and Phil Ohlmeyer (Jerry O'Connell) at his side. Woody convinces the commander (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to allow Jim to join the mission, even if he hasn't gone through enough red tape. When they get to Mars, they find more than just three graves and a seemingly abandoned camp.

I never though I'd see it, but here it is: the Disney-fication of Brian De Palma. Mission to Mars is blatantly commercial, and completely panders to the taste and intelligence of the average pre-teenager. Passing this off as science fiction is an insult to fans of the genre. For example, here's a basic science lesson for the screenwriters: DNA is not made of chromosomes; it's exactly the opposite. The differing chromosomes are within a gene. Such details are not significant in a film like this, where's they have already spent God-knows-how-much money on an effect with M&M's in a zero-gravity double helix arrangement.

Which leads to another big problem: a severe flood of product placements. Would astronauts actually drink Dr. Pepper in space? Would a Mars rover be plastered with Pennzoil and Kawasaki stickers? The only saving grace in this film of uninspired plot devices and lame sentimentality is the incredible production design. The landscapes of Mars are very impressive, and many other sets and effects look great on the screen, but why do I have to sit through all that crap to see them? As you can see, the film begs many questions, but provides no answers.

I don't know how much longer I can stand this trend. To think of how much I loved films like Scarface and The Untouchables only makes the loss of De Palma feel greater. Surely, this film will be somewhat successful. It has a huge promotion behind it, and very little competition. Disney will probably offer him more projects like this, and he'll end up just like another Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. Goodbye, Brian. We'll miss you.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Mission to Mars (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Mission To Mars (2000) -- VHS
Mission To Mars (2000) -- DVD
Mission To Mars: Original Score -- Compact Disc

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan