Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Visions of Life - Mission to Mars

Thursday, September 10, 2009

De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Visions of Life - Mission to Mars

by Ryan Kelly [Ryan Kelly is an East coast based amateur film blogger who writes out of a passion to share his views with the world. He is the author of the blog Medfly Quarantine.] One of the most inexplicably hated movies of this past decade, Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars, is not only "not that bad", it might even be great. The film presently rests with a score of 34 on Metacritic (which translates to "generally unfavorable reviews", to those who don't speak the language), and a confounding, outrageous, wholly unjustifiable 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, much of this hatred arises from the fact that the movie was marketed one way (a space adventure from the man who made Mission: Impossible just a few years earlier), while actually being a thoughtful, humanist, post-modern take on science fiction lore. And I feel it's the film's unique encapsulation of the science-fiction genre on film that may have jarred some at first; it has the grand, cosmic mystery of Kubrick, the humanistic benevolence of Spielberg, and the spirit of science fiction pulp and b-movies. Tim Robbins' character, Woody Blake, wears a Flash Gordon rocketship around his neck, and like the Robbins character, Mission to Mars keeps the adventurous spirit of B-movies close to its heart; but it's more than a celebration of trash, it's a transcending of it. So many action spectacles are given a free pass in spite of more often than not being nothing more than B-movies with high production values, but Mission to Mars understands the childlike sense of wonder these films would tap in to—De Palma has never been an artist who denies cinema's more base pleasures—but De Palma does much more here than dress-up empty material with CGI. The movie begins with one of De Palma's patented long takes (complete with some Buckwheat Zydeco on the soundtrack), but it's so much more than showing off technique—he introduces us to all the film's principle characters here, the two teams of astronauts that will be the first human beings to set foot on Mars. They each consist of three men, one woman ("same handicap", one character quips at the beginning of the film, but women being equal to men is one of the key elements of Mission to Mars), and this is fitting, as gender dynamics have always been a key element of De Palma's work—and in Mission to Mars, gender dynamics define space exploration, as husband and wife couples are chosen to give support and strength to one another during the long duration of the voyage. It's at this point that the movie introduces us to Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), an astronaut who, along with his wife, was slated to be on the first manned mission to Mars. However, it is revealed that Sinise's wife got sick and passed away, and he had to unfortunately give up his and his wife's life-long dream of going to Mars in order to be at her side while she died (apparently, playing characters who almost-but-not-quite go to space is Sinise's specialty). For a movie that so many reviewers wrote off as poorly written, the dramatic elements of Mission to Mars are poignant and extremely well played by the film's performers. Yes, it's a film that wears it's heart on its sleeve—but is that really such a bad thing? It's one of the most earnest movies of the decade, so enamored with its central concept and characters that I personally find it difficult not to love it as well. Mission to Mars, with its large-scale subject and budget, also gives De Palma great material with which to flex his directorial muscle; the incredible special effects and set design make it one of the few movies, outside of 2001, that have actually taken me to space. There is one sequence in a spaceship where the characters dance to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away", and the camera is as weightless as the characters. Even if you don't like the movie, I defy you (seriously) to tell me that this sequence, at once romantic and bittersweet (romantic in that it shows how in love the Robbins character is with his wife, bittersweet in that it highlights the loss felt by the Sinise character), doesn't at least bring a smile to your face. The sequence that shows the Mars Rover exploring the Mars Terrain (one that recalls R2-D2's arrival on Tattoine from Star Wars), with Ennio Morricone's soothing, beautiful music on the soundtrack, uncannily recreates the surface of Mars in gorgeous widescreen. Brian De Palma has always been a film maker who operates within the Hollywood system, all the while subverting it within his films, and it speaks to what an idiosyncratic artist he is that he managed to bring his unique moral stamp to a large-scale Hollywood spectacle. The film strips away the usual xenophobia of space action/adventure movies by portraying aliens as benevolent givers of life, as opposed to relegating them to a generic monster role. "Life reaches out for life" is the film's simple, eloquent, and profound mantra—and it's the exact notion that so many films on this subject fail to grasp. It's so easy for films to give us empty spectacle that offer nothing in terms of ideas or subtext, but for a film to challenge our ideas about life, the universe, and everything (to borrow from Douglas Adams) is a rare thing that deserves praise. Of course, this is Brian De Palma we're talking about, so these ideas come from within the firm boundaries of genre; but the subtext is still there, and it's still powerful. Mission to Mars expands on popular folklore by making the so-called "Stone Face of Mars" (something that allegedly proved there was life on Mars which ultimately proved to be an optical illusion right around the time of the film's release) a central plot point; one character says, "In all our myths, in every human culture, Mars has always held a special attraction. I mean, what if that means something?" Mission to Mars assumes that the fact that Mars has tapped into the popular imagination in the manner it has does mean something, and so expands on that pop mythology by making Martians the creators of life on Earth; it is revealed at the end of the movie (set inside the Stone Face) that upon the destruction of life on Mars by an asteroid, Martians "seeded" life on Earth. An inspired CGI sequence gives a brief history of Earth, with the first single celled organisms evolving into fish, then reptiles, then mammals, then humans—this causes Sinise to realize that we are one with not only one another, but with the Martians as well "We're them, they're us" is the film's ultimate realization—all life coming full circle and being intimately related to one another. Then Gary Sinise's Jim McConnell, like Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), is given a choice between remaining with his human compatriots or hopping in the Martian spaceship into the great unknown, and Sinise makes the decision to go on the quest of eternal enlightenment; the decision many of us would probably like to make, if we weren't too scared of what we might find. Mission to Mars is, ultimately, a supremely good-natured, highly entertaining adventure film—but one that understands the essence of science ficition, which is ideas about existence and humanity. De Palma gives us all this in the guise of a Hollywood action movie (one released by Disney with a PG rating, no less), but when you take De Palma's career as a whole and realize that he's always been as much defined by popular modalities of storytelling as by his own, highly idiosyncratic style, Mission to Mars feels less like an anomaly and more like a flawless distillation of themes he had previously tackled; at once paying homage to genre and expanding on it. The cosmic perspective of Mission to Mars would pave the way for his next film, Femme Fatale (2002), which instilled his preferred genre (the thriller) with similar cosmological and existential queries presented in Mission to Mars. It has marked the beginning of a bold new phase of De Palma's career, one that would challenge the popular notions about the kind of director he is (plagiarist, stylist, and so on) and enrich his art with bold, dazzlingly self-assured technique.


Adam Zanzie said...

Two nights ago, watching "Mission to Mars" again on my super-old VHS tape (which taped the movie when it aired once on PayPerView), I was stunned when I actually cried during the death scene of one of the pivotal characters. When I saw this scene in 3rd grade, it saddened me so- but since then I've seen the movie about a dozen times, and somehow the pain of KNOWING that the scene is coming up really gives you feelings of anxiety. Then when the death finally occurs? With Morricone's score streaming along in that sombre way? Total Niagra Falls.

Listen to me talking about how I cried during a De Palma movie! I usually hate it when movies make you cry, but that scene earns it. And anyway, "Mission to Mars" is really just a John Ford movie set in space. De Palma is proving that he can be sentimental if he wants to. Sure, the film is also speckled with moments of cynicism, and you gotta love that "security system" sequence with the funnel exploding the astronaut and everything. But Jim's step into the portal is mesmerizing, especially when the glass starts rising around him and Morricone's score (this movie probably has my favorite Morricone score ever) is swelling up again; it is, as you say, a nice reminder of Roy Neary in "Close Encounters", for another reason being that neither Spielberg or De Palma even show us what's inside the spaceship, unless you count the CEOT3K Special Edition.

Ryan, this was a compelling defense for "Mission to Mars". Even Armond White's "anyone who does not understand it does not understand movies" argument doesn't do justice to the film nearly as much.

Geoff said...

Yes, a wonderful essay, Ryan-- you really bring out the beauty of the film.

Jeff McMahon said...

There are so many good things about this film (the cinematography, the Morricone score, the earnestness ambitions, DePalma's usual facility with set pieces) that it's extra-painful that the combined execution of them still results in a movie that's ultimately a near-total failure.

Todd Ford said...

I've always loved M2M. And I've been keeping a file of bookmarks to thoughtful defenses over the years -- of which there have been precious few. I've added yours. I wrote a comparatively silly little post about it a while back. You can read it here.

Ryan Kelly said...

@Adam, I too have been moved to tears by this film; but not the death scene so much, but the ending. It's just a sentiment that I find extremely touching and beautiful. I don't think it's unusual to find De Palma's films moving; I'd say Carrie, Obsession, Blow-Out and Carlito's Way especially are all heartfelt films (Obsession is another De Palma that has made me cry).

@Geoff, thank you very much for the kind words. You run one of the best De Palma resources on the web so your praise means much to me.

@Jeff, if you think all those films are well composed, what exactly about the film makes it fail for you?

@Todd, I'm honored to have made your file. I agree, there aren't enough people singing the film's praises, and it makes me happy that you think I even came close to doing the film justice. I shall read your piece about it, which I'm fairly certain is anything but 'silly'.