Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Re-Visiting Mission to Mars (2000)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Re-Visiting Mission to Mars (2000)

by Chris Voss [Here's a look at an unlikely work in Brian De Palma's filmography by the talented Chris Voss, who writes about film at Celluloid Moon, an offshoot of his main site, Geek Monkey] Has there been a Brian De Palma film that tries harder to distance itself from being a "Brian De Palma film" than Mission to Mars? Along with The Bonfire of the Vanities (both, coincidentally, rank at the bottom of De Palma's filmography over at Rotten Tomatoes, with 24% favorable), it seems the least fitted to the themes and styles he's experimented with throughout his career. It also has the dubious personal honor of being one of only two films (the other being Francis Ford Coppola's unfairly maligned Bram Stoker's Dracula) that caused my wife to exclaim mid-film, "This was one of the stupidest movies I've ever seen." That was nine years ago, when the film was released, and was the moment in time that instigated me to re-visit the film with as part of Cinema Viewfinder's De Palma Blog-A-Thon. For the uninitiated, Mission to Mars is about a manned mission to the Red Planet (led by Don Cheadle, who's probably the best thing in the movie) that goes south when the team is seemingly attacked by a mysterious presence that results in the exposure of an enormous, alien face carved out of the rock. A crack team comprised of Tim Robbins, Jerry O'Connell, Connie Nielsen and Gary Sinise (who was originally slated to lead the mission until the death of his wife caused him to be taken off the mission), attempt to rescue the mission but wind up crashing on Mars, where they find Cheadle miraculously alive, and discover the mystery behind the stone face and the beings who carved it. I only recently discovered that Mission to Mars was in part based on a Disney attraction and, in hindsight, makes the overall visual style of the film more understandable, if not better. It opens with a signature De Palma sequence—a single crane shot that slowly weaves its way through a barbecue party for Cheadle and his crew. The camera leisurely weaves its way through the main players, setting up the same tired group stereotyping: the laid back leader and his awesome wife who's almost but not quite as as capable as he is; the wise-cracking stud/comic relief; only cutting away when we get to Gary Sinise—the hot shot damaged hero. These slow, continuous takes appear throughout Mission to Mars, and it's hard not to be impressed by some of the moments De Palma wrings out of the story. The space station monitoring the mission is introduced in a sequence that echoes the opening shot, tracking down corridors and following the walls until arriving at the command center. Some of the effects shots are particularly good—De Palma wisely backs away from the action, letting the moments unfurl methodically, as when the face's "security system" makes its appearance: A later scene, inside the stone face, is reminiscent of Kubrick in its pristine, clinical presentation: But nothing can overcome a script that relies too heavily on tired cliches and superfluous exposition. Plot points are telegraphed miles in advance (did anyone doubt the whole "candy DNA" gag would be important later on?); exposition is crammed into every scene; and even the effective set pieces, such as when the rescue team are forced to abandon their ship and try to manually latch onto to an orbiting satellite before burning up in Mars' atmosphere, are ruined with corny dialogue and over-used exclamations. All of which is a shame because under all the silliness is an attempt to make an interesting science fiction film, as opposed to a sci-fi popcorn movie. Maybe not GREAT science fiction, but at least something that tries to stand out against what was popular at the time (the similarly dismal Red Planet came out the same year). Mission to Mars fails. I have to wonder why, seeing it again, what was it in the story or the concept that caused Disney/Touchstone to reach out and say, "You know who'd be a good choice for this? Brian De Palma," and then bury what De Palma is known for doing in a rote, bland movie that was entirely typical of everything else that was out there. Randoms ("borrowed" from Matt Dessem's wonderful Criterion Contraption)
  • For a science fiction film, there are dozens of odd choices and inaccuracies that pull you out of the film. Movement on the planet feels decidedly ordinary - there is no discernible gravitational difference between Mars and Earth. In the space station, zero gravity asserts itself only when it's needed to provide moments like the candy DNA strand or the dance between Robbins and Nielsen.
  • The oddest choice, the one that pulled me completely out of the film, was the decision to have everyone's voices sound perfectly normal when inside their spacesuits. It sounds like they're all in a room talking together. Quite possibly the best radio reception to ever be used in space.
  • Gary Sinise wears A LOT of eye shadow in this film. It's kind of disturbing.
  • Although parenthood has tempered her vitriol, my wife still hates Mission to Mars, feeling it's actively trying to make her dumber. Note to self: DO NOT ask her to re-visit Bram Stoker's Dracula with you.
Just when you think you're doing something original (like who the heck wants to talk about Mission to Mars?), you find later that someone has indeed done it, and done it better. There's a great article over at Reverse Shot that essentially makes the same points, albeit with more flair and better overall writing ability.


Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Mission to Mars had everything going for it, excellent cast( Don Cheadle, Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins), one of the best music directors( Ennio Morricone), stunning visuals, great set pieces, sadly it had no proper script nor screenplay.

Major issue with M2M, was that many scenes looked like Deja Vu, seen it some where. Maybe me being a sci fi fan, could immediately make them out.

Martian humanoid explaining everything- The Abyss climax, of the Alien warning Ed Harris about Global Warming.

Encounter with Aliens- Close Encounters, Abyss

Again the husband( Tim Robbins) sacrificing his life for wifey- Reverse of the Abyss scene, where Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, gets unconscious trying to save Ed Harris.

Spaceship Interiors- Again homage to Kubrick's 2001.

Would not have minded the references, but honestly the characterization is so lame, you really feel nothing, and that is a waste of talent.

Hard core fan of BDP, but his output this decade has been distinctly below par( have not seen Redacted).

Adam Zanzie said...

Chris and Ratnakar, I'm worried that you guys might be giving "Mission to Mars" less credit than it warrants. I turn yout to an IMDB review of the film written by tieman64, who is one of the foremost IMDB experts on De Palma:

De Palma once said that space travel and scientific conquest are the only things that he can generate genuine optimism for, and one feels this in "Mission to Mars". The film has an overwhelming sense of earnestness. De Palma characters have never seemed so pure, optimistic, good natured and filled with humanity. There's no cynicism or bitterness here. Upon first viewing I found this all very cheesy, but now, coupled with Ennio Moricone's sweeping and romantic score, I find the film's broad brushstrokes very moving.

"Mission" also continues De Palma's trend of turning classic films on their side. He's done this to Hitch, Fellini, Anotonioni and Hawks. Now he does it to Kubrick (one scene literally has "2001: A Space Odyssey's" monolith on it's side).

Does this make De Palma a hack? No, It makes him a giddy delight if you're a film fan. "Mission to Mars" is a bit more straightforward than "2001," it's a little friendlier, but it's practically the same movie. Just replace the monolith with the "Mars face," and drop Hal. Both films' spaceships also look alike, and the white room used in the climactic scene strongly resembles the room at the end of "2001." And of course, where Kubrick gave us spaceships dancing the waltz, De Palma gives us astronauts dancing in zero gravity.

But De Palma doesn't stop at Kubrick. His film has a character named Luke who spends one scene talking about a mysterious "force" (Star Wars), a spaceship commanded by a man named Jim (Star Trek), and many overt reference to "Flash Gordon", "Robinson Crusoe" and "Teasure Island". Noticing that his tale is a virtual rehash of "The Abyss", De Palma also tips his hat to James Cameron by having Gary Sinese become submerged in oxygenated water (like Ed Harriss) during the film's finale. And of course both films have a CGI tentacle. Cameron gives us water, De Palma gives us sand.

Everything De Palma touches has been covered before. He acknowledges this. But it's how he touches, that's magical. His entire film is elegant and fluid. Every shot is just a little bit wider or closer than usual. His camera pans and tracks with robotic precision, dancing, points of views shifting, perspectives changing. There's a perfection in his form. Every shot is beautifully precise.

But what about the trite story, critics say? Yes, the story is silly, stupid even, but it's all told with such an earnest "awww shucks" feeling that it sucks you in. And besides, De Palma is never about story.

Nothing in De Palma's cinema is real. He knows that all films are about other films. Everything he's done has been done before. This is what all formalists (Coens, Tarantino, Leone) are about. They're interested in the act of watching and how we catalogue what we see.

8.5/10- The film has aged well. Gorgeous visuals, beautiful music and an affecting sense of optimism. The only flaw is the last act, which still works thanks to Morricone's score and an emotional flashback montage. Requires several viewings.

Tony Dayoub said...


I definitely don't hate it, but it's pretty low on the stuff I think of when I think of great examples of De Palma's filmography.

Love the Van Halen scene, though.

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Adam, i don't hate M2M, as more than felt quite underwhelmed, given the premise and the cast, it could have been better.

Last time i felt so underwhelmed for a sci fi flick was Sphere.

I would not have really expected much had it been something like Star Wars, ID or even Starship Troopers, those movies were targeted as summer blockbusters.

I guess maybe my expectations were higher here.

-- Ratnakar

Ratnakar Sadasyula said...

Vis a vis, Bonfire of Vanities, i think casting Tom Hanks, as a slimey kind misfired. Hanks is surely one of my favorites, but his "Good Guy" image was too overwhelming for people to accept him in a slime pot kinda role.

Same thing with Casualties of War, i think viewers just could not accept Michael.J.Fox in a serious war drama. Sadly unlike Leo or Johnny Depp, Fox could never break out of his "Teen Idol" image.

Jason Bellamy said...

I watched Mission to Mars for the first time about two weeks ago. I knew it was a maligned film, but that made me excited. I figured it was one of those that failed to meet initial expectations but that might prove to be a diamond in the rough. I was wrong.

Adam: That long post from IMDB sure talks a good game -- essentially arguing that everything that's wrong with the film is what's right with it -- but it does nothing to change my reaction. That post tells me I should be tickled in all the places I was bored, that I should be happy with the accessibility of the film instead of finding it empty, that I should find the characters earnest instead of thinly drawn and unconvincing.

It is pretty to look at. That's a fact. But that's about the best and only compliment I can give it. The difference between this and something by the allusion-heavy Tarantino is that while QT uses familiar shots to capture fresh emotions, Mission to Mars uses familiar shots to create no emotion whatsoever (onscreen or off).

Anonymous said...

It's too bad the review that caused me to re-evaluate "Mission to Mars" much more positively than I had initially, from a blogger who went by the name That Little Round-headed Boy, is no longer available. I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Last night I finally watched "Femme Fatale," and hoo boy, can't wait to start digging and see what's available about that film. At least half of it is a knockout, and I'm thinking maybe the whole thing is. But I'll have to see it again. The ending caught me by surprise, and I'm still trying to figure out where I come down on "Femme Fatale." But the range is anywhere from "very good" to "masterpiece." Seriously.

Keep in mind that I was a huge fan of "The Black Dahlia" and "Raising Cain" -- two De Palma films that aren't often mentioned as his best, even by fans. His other great work -- his greatest work -- is "Casualities of War," but gosh, it just ain't a "fun" movie the way the others mentioned are (at times).

Adam Zanzie said...

You're not alone in your opinion on the ending of "Femme Fatale", Discman. I think the ending of that movie is pretty retarded as well... but I can understand why others love it. The IDEA of Laure Ash getting a second chance sure sounds enticing; it's just that I'm not so sure I like the eventual denoument.

But again, I have to quote tieman64 from IMDB. His analysis of the ending of "Femme Fatale" (spoilers):

At the end of the film, Bardo completes his masterpiece by inserting a little white figure (of Laura, a name which itself alludes to Otto Preminger's classic) onto his wall. The figure doesn't belong, Bardo simply chooses to put it there. Thematically, "Femme Fatale" ends on the same note. Noir fatalism is thwarted by a completely arbitrary, totally ILLOGICAL and cosmically IMPOSSIBLE moment of editing whereby De Palma redeems his hero and kills off her opponents.

Critics call this sequence implausible. But De Palma's point is that it doesn't have to be plausible. Bardo puts the white figure on his wall because he wants to. Similarly, De Palma ends the film as he does, because he wants to. He shows us Laura's fatalistic noir dream and then rescues her from it. He makes it clear that he is redeeming her and willing this positive ending into existence solely because he as an artist, but more importantly, as noir God, has the power to do so.

This flips the usual noir logic. If Kubrick's "The Killing" highlights the deterministic law of the universe (Clay's plan crumbling to pieces all because of a random poodle), De Palma's "Femme Fatale" highlights the power of the artist, able to do recreate a universe entirely devoid of cosmic law.

I swear, tieman can almost always come in handy when it comes to a quibble over a De Palma flick. He even loves "The Black Dahlia". For those who are interested, you can usually find him hanging around the Stanley Kubrick board.

jim emerson said...

I've sent Discman's comment to The Artist Formerly Known As That Little Round-Headed Boy in hopes that he might dig up his earlier piece and submit it to the Blog-a-Thon.

Meanwhile, not to wander too far astray, I couldn't help but connect tieman's reading of the ending of "Femme Fatale" to Fritz Lang's classic noir, "Woman in the Window" (companion piece to "Scarlet Street," for those who aren't familiar with it).

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for contacting TAFKATLR-HB, Jim... LOL.

As for your reference to Lang's noir, can you explain the connection for those of us who haven't seen the film (including me)?

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

My, my, this blockhead is pleased that his long-ago scribblings brought some attention to De Palma's film, and made a minor impression. I deleted my archive years ago. But I'm sure it's floating out there in the Internet somewhere, probably right next to Tim Robbins.

Adam Zanzie said...

Never though of that before, Jim... although, like Tony, I haven't seen Lang's film. I'll bet tieman would be flattered that you interpreted his review in that way, however!

space said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
space said...

"mission to mars" is on blu-ray this month!

space said...

it's popular knowledge that m2m's science sucks, but the story is actually very scientifically sound - and now proven -

please don't listen to the popular opinion about this - it has picked up because many ppl like to repeat things referred to as smart (m2m hate)

once i was watching it at home and my roommate wandered about and said, "hey, is this a musical?". enough said

Ray Sawhill said...

Hey, I was one of the only reviewers to like the movie. (Didn't think a lot of it worked, but still found it rewarding.) Salon was good enough to print the review. See if you think I make any kind of case for it: