If they ever decide to revive “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “Mission to Mars” would be the perfect movie with which to launch the return. In this elaborate, highfalutin space opera, Hollywood proves just as inept as NASA has been lately in coping with our neighboring planet. Dull and eventually ludicrous while trying to be moving and profound, Brian De Palma’s first venture into the airless void aspires to join the small but distinguished club of spiritually inspiring sci-fiers that includes “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “200l: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” films in which human contact with otherworldly intelligence is benign and hopeful rather than hostile and horrific. But the vacuum created by the elimination of normal genre elements, including thrills and suspense, hasn’t been filled with adequate substitutes, leaving the film floating through dead space; most accurate ad line for this one would be a riff on a previous sci-fi come-on: “In outer space, no one can hear you scream … of boredom.” Pre-teen kids rep the group most likely not to gag, but pic’s ponderousness will put them off as well. Grim reviews and word of mouth will put the word out quickly, resulting in precipitous falloff from whatever opening weekend biz it manages to do.
Long-standing concern over the competition between this Disney title and Warners’ similarly themed “Red Planet” should quickly subside, as “Mission to Mars” long will be forgotten by the time the allegedly more youth-oriented entry arrives in November. In fact, “Mars” will no doubt go down as one of the all-time bad movies. Wisecracks can begin with alternate titles — “Unevent Horizon” and “Close Encounters of the Shallow Kind” will do for starters — and continue through some of the effects sequences, which resemble those in “The Mummy” more than those of any other sci-fi film you could name and in which the actors sometimes stand there with obvious ignorance of what’s going on around them.
There was probably a hopelessly irreconcilable conflict of sensibilities from the beginning, as the script by Jim and John Thomas (“Predator”) and Graham Yost (“Speed”) has an emotional sincerity and philosophical optimism utterly at odds with De Palma’s flamboyant determinism. As if emboldened stylistically by all the meditative down-time in “2001,” De Palma is content to let not much happen during much of the middle-going, which involves a long trip to Mars, and that’s just when the picture starts burning up.
First half-hour is divided into expository preliminaries: In Texas in the year 2020, the camaraderie of the about-to-depart Mars crew is established at a nocturnal barbecue during which it’s also revealed that the best and the brightest of the bunch, ace pilot and designer Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), bowed out of training after his wife (Kim Delaney, seen in stickily sentimental flashbacks) became terminally ill. Thirteen months later, on Mars, mission commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) and three colleagues encounter mysterious, tombstone-like formations and an enormous mound that would seem to indicate the one-time presence of a higher intelligence.
But immediately upon making their find, the earthlings fall victim to an intense, swirling sandstorm, which whisks all of them but Luke to their doom. Revealed in the residue is a giant humanoid face sculpted into the top of the mound, peering with vacant eyes into space.
Luke’s fractured communications are received by mission control aboard a World Space Station presided over by an uncredited Armin Mueller-Stahl. In short order, a recovery mission is dispatched to attempt a rescue of Luke from whatever may be menacing him. On board are Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), his wife and the crew’s medic, Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), scientist Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell) and McConnell, who’s reckoned to be the only guy to pull off such a difficult flight. Given the lack of conflict among this group of old friends, the only engaging things about their journey are the very effectively rendered moments of weightlessness (nothing new to Sinise after “Apollo 13”), especially a sensual little airborne dance initiated by Terri.
When the group arrives in range of Mars, the engines blow, forcing them to abandon ship and attempt a perilous space-walk transfer to a small Mars orbiter. In a sequence that should have been harrowing but instead invites near-derision because of some hokey details and contrived logistics, Woody floats off beyond rescue range while a horrified Terri, immobile within her spacesuit, must witness her husband’s demise (a fate telegraphed in the opening credits by a telltale “with Tim Robbins” credit).
But the remaining trio must soldier onto the Martian surface, where they find Luke somewhat crazed but still alive subsisting on edible vegetation in a tented greenhouse. Luke babbles about the Force (couldn’t the scripters have found a different word, for God’s sake?) that came out of the mound, and says he’s concluded that he was allowed to survive “so that one would be left to figure out the secret.” In short order, the group, keying into some aural patterning reminiscent of “Close Encounters,” finds a way to enter the Force’s inner sanctum, where the astronauts are conveniently able to remove their helmets so we can see their faces and thus their awestruck expressions when the secrets of existence are helpfully and vividly unveiled to them.
What is unveiled, and what the film has been building up to for nearly two hours, is a nifty little special effects sequence that carries a beguiling speculative message about the origins of life on Earth, as well as Mars and beyond. Unfortunately, the dramatic package that it arrives in is so flimsy, unconvincing and poorly wrought that it’s impossible to be swept away by the illustrated version of creationism on offer.
In addition, this is a film that needed real heart to have a prayer of making viewers overlook its fundamental shortcomings and just go along for the ride. Unfortunately, De Palma is one of the most baroque and dispassionate of American directors, and he cheats this story not only through his coldness but by purposely jettisoning sequences that could at least have provided visual thrills, such as takeoffs and landings, which under the tame circumstances here would have been high points.
Pictorially, the film is smooth and pristine looking. De Palma and his frequent cinematographer Stephen H. Burum go for their patented swooping and twisting camera moves whenever possible, and there are some very nice ones onboard the recovery ship. But the confined quarters and, elsewhere, the many special effects shots keep the director’s approach quite restrained by his standards, and the PG rating serves a parallel function in keeping a cap on his penchant for violence and raw language.
Thesping by the talented leads is inoffensive but generally bland, although on more than one occasion the actors seem to have only the barest clue as to what special effects they’re acting with or against. Spacecraft interiors have a strong “2001” look, the Martian surface has been aptly rendered by red-filtered second unit shots of the Jordanian desert around Petra, and Ennio Morricone’s score goes straight for the story’s intended emotional impact via alternately wistful and majestic motifs.