Mission to Mars

     Here’s a short list of adjectives one might use to describe Brian De Palma’s new sci fi thriller, Mission to Mars:

     Predictable, corny, contrived, ridiculous, laughable, unbelievable, unrealistic, stupid, over-the-top, melodramatic, bad, horrible, dumb, over-done, clichéd, hackneyed, unimaginative, trite, pretentious, childish, banal, repetitive, boring, hideous, and disgusting.

     Okay, maybe I’m being a bit unfair. After all, I should have been prepared for this. It’s not like De Palma is known for making consistently good, satisfying films. In fact, if I had to pick a scene from one of his movies that was emblematic of his style, I’d choose the infamous chainsaw scene from Scarface. Admittedly, sometimes a chainsaw to the face is an effective way of getting a point across. But most of the time it really, really isn’t, and De Palma has never been able to understand that. For him everything has to be chainsaws filmed in split screen from two different angles in slow motion, while blaring music and agonized screaming vie for prominence on the soundtrack. As a result of this his career has been wildly erratic. After the powerful, intense thriller Carrie, he put Michael Caine in drag and told him to murder hookers in Dressed to Kill. He hit the peak of his talent and effectiveness with The Untouchables, the exciting story of how Eliot Ness and his crack team of cops took down Al Capone. Then he made the unforgivably mediocre Snake Eyes. And now, after the rather enjoyable Mission: Impossible, he gives us this piece of eye and ear pollution.

     Mission to Mars as a whole is an ugly, mutated clone of Apollo 13, 2001 and various episodes of "Star Trek." It’s the story of--you guessed it--the first manned mission to Mars. The team is headed by Luc Goddard (Don Cheadle of Boogie Nights and Out of Sight), and also includes a couple of Russians (they’re foreigners, so you know they’re gonna die). Luc shares a very loving but completely platonic relationship with Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) and Woody Blake (Tim Robbins). Woody is heading up a second, follow-up mission to Mars, which will include comic sidekick Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell, the boyish-looking fellow from Scream 2 and the TV series "Sliders"), and Woody’s wife, Terri (Connie Nielsen of Rushmore). (A married couple going to space together sound like a bad idea to you? Not to the screenwriters!)

     Anyway, the first group to go to Mars comes upon an inexplicable phenomenon that attacks them, kills a large portion of them (rather spectacularly, I might add), and cuts them off from contact with the people back home (note that at this point this could still be the plot summary of just about any sci fi movie). So the second group hurries to Mars, now determined to rescue their comrades and discover what force attacked them. (Could it be...aliens?! Duh, of course it is, didn’t you see the trailer?) On the way, there is a contrived interlude in which an emergency completely unrelated to the main plot is introduced in a shameless attempt both to imitate Apollo 13 and to pad out the film with more melodrama and special effects shots. Later on, the movie will claim that a normal human can look at a couple of strands of DNA and tell you exactly what species they would make up. Then the movie will try to impress you with an amazing story about the origin of life that you’ve heard ten times before. Then it will mash together some uplifting thoughts about life in the universe into a corny mush and serve it to you on a platter.

     But before any of that happens, right off the bat, the movie screws up. It opens up at a party on Earth celebrating the pending mission to Mars. This party is extremely similar to the party at the beginning of Apollo 13, except it’s boring, and it’s heavily laden with exposition, back story, and decidedly forced kidding-around-like-old-friends talk. Also, if Mission to Mars has one strength, it is its special effects. Many of the visuals in this film are absolutely stunning (even though many of them were clearly derived from the stunning visuals of previous sci-fi films like 2001 and The Abyss). So why start the movie on Earth, during a party? Through the whole opening sequence I was sitting there thinking, "Who are these annoying, fake people spouting off clumsy clichés at one another? Get to the damn aliens and spaceships!"

     Some scenes in Mission to Mars go on about five minutes longer than they should. Others should never have been filmed at all. Also, if this was the first movie I’d seen Robbins and Sinise in, I would have said, "Wow, those two old white guys are terrible actors." That’s because their dialogue is laughably awful and their direction, as I have already suggested, utterly ridiculous. Robbins and Sinise, along with the other actors, mug and grieve and groan and scream, "Oh, my God!" until I just had to cover my eyes in disbelief and disgust and try not to listen.

     It took three screenwriters to build this towering mountain of garbage; all three of them together couldn’t come up with one original idea. Two of them are Jim and John Thomas, a pair of screenwriting brothers also responsible for Predator, Predator 2 and Wild Wild West. The third is Graham Yost, who crafted such gems as Speed and Broken Arrow. I detect a distinct downhill trend in the quality of their work. In fact, given this current tendency, I predict their next attempt will produce a screenplay of such monstrous, blood-sucking, zombie-like characteristics that they should be banned from writing now, before it’s too late.

     Not that these guys really "wrote" the screenplay for Mission to Mars. They just compiled it from the scripts of countless other action and sci fi films. Then they dumbed it down, replaced all the good dialogue with clichés, and tacked a "fade out" on the end.

     Hollywood has been criticized for its tendency to remake perfectly good films as far worse films simply in order to make a profit. But these days Hollywood is also engaging in an even more despicable and insidious process--the witless pastiche. Grab hunks of other, better movies, jam them together, turn all the dialogue into simple catch-phrases, repackage it, and you’ve got a blockbuster, right?

     Please, please, answer this question with a resounding "No." Please, don’t go see Mission to Mars. You’re smarter than this movie. You deserve better.

Jim Genzano

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