What director Brian De Palma and his screenwriters have concocted isn't merely a mishmash of ideas, a pastiche of other films (better and worse) -- though it's indeed hard to sit through Mission to Mars without playing "spot the influence." What's really going on here is something far more interesting, in a banal sort of way: De Palma, who for years tried to fit into Alfred Hitchcock's hand-me-downs, finally aspires to make his deep-think, Big Statement Picture, only to wind up going where better men have gone before. Sci-fi being the only genre he hasn't yet gotten his grubby mitts around and strangled, Mission to Mars is what happens when a film junkie gets his hands on millions of dollars' worth of Tinkertoys and a script written by a video-store clerk. Not only does it makes no sense -- a De Palma trademark, given that Mission: Impossible was comprehensible only when viewed backward -- but it comes up hollow, cheap and cynical. The trailer, with its stark shots of spacemen walking through all-white interiors, hints at 2001: A Space Odyssey -- ah, but if only it aimed so low. All the dope in the universe couldn't render Mission to Mars that, like, deep. It's as shallow as a wading pool. Once more, with feeling: They are us, and we are them. And...? And...?
It would be too simple to merely dismiss Mission to Mars as a low-rent 2001, though it certainly is that -- from the anti-gravity centrifuge to the better-living-through-alien-technology finale that ends the movie with one giant, anti-climactic shrug. (We came 100 million miles for this?) When the point is worn to a dull nub -- Mission to Mars's ending is a variation on the finales found in 2001 and its pitiable sequel, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- it's damned near impossible to make it stick. De Palma and writers Jim and John Thomas and Graham Yost not only think theirs is an inventive premise, but they're unwilling to even deal with its consequences -- they're arrogant cowards. The revelation almost feels tacked on and unfinished: It takes nearly the entirety of the film to get to Mars (there is only a brief sequence set on the planet early on), and when our heroes finally do land, they seem to forget why they're there in the first place.
And it all begins so promisingly. While Buckwheat Zydeco blares on the soundtrack, a rocket blasts off, only to explode into a shower of confetti, a child's firework rendered as visual gag. Eight NASA astronauts -- Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and wife Terri (Connie Nielsen), Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell) among them -- have gathered at a backyard barbecue in the year 2020 to bid farewell to their families. Half are due to blast off for Mars the next day, and the rest will follow later -- all except the man "who wrote the book on Mars," Jim McConnell (Gary Sinese), whose wife, Maggie (played in videotape flashback by Kim Delaney), has recently died of an unspecified illness. Jim pulled himself from the Mars mission to care for Maggie, though he still longs to go. He spent twelve years training and wants only to plant his foot on the planet. (And thoughts of Apollo 13 dance through their heads...)
Cut to thirteen months later, on the surface of Mars. Luke and his fellow travelers on the Mars One encounter an anomaly on the surface, a mountain obscuring an enormous metal object. But they venture too close to the object, which apparently interprets the astronauts' radar scans as hostile (see any number of Star Trek episodes for further explanation) and sets out to destroy the travelers with an enormous sandworm right out of Dune. One astronaut even suffers an inexplicably grisly death -- inexplicable because, not too much later, the alien hiding beneath this mountain, which turns out to be a giant mask of a humanoid face, is benevolent and welcoming. Why it would choose to kill its "offspring" is unfathomable.
Suddenly, an exploration becomes a rescue mission: Woody, Terri, Phil and, yes, Jim are sent in the Mars Two to retrieve Luke -- though it takes them a year to get to Mars (and it feels like it), and when they do arrive, they're surprised to find him alive ("Luke, you're alive!"). Worse, when they do find Luke, looking and acting like a man spouting end-of-the-world prophesies on a Hollywood street corner, they're ready to head back to Earth -- until Jim remembers, seemingly out of nowhere, that there's that danged giant mask they need to go back and investigate. Somewhere in there is a rather ludicrous explanation about musical notes and hidden DNA codes, all of which is explained with a few random strokes on a keyboard. One longs for the awe and innocence of FranÇois Truffaut in Close Encounters, explaining the aliens' musical tones using sign language and a small, sweet smile.
De Palma, who has always been the most minor "major" director, seems terribly out of his depth here. The confines of the space capsule, in which far too much of the movie takes place, allow for none of the jagged, jittery camerawork that brings even the most moribund of his pictures to some kind of life. Snake Eyes, with its hyperkinetic intro lifted from Hitchcock's Rope, began where most movies end, and De Palma pushes his luck by once more opening a film with a protracted, apparently single-shot sequence -- but instead of Nicolas Cage cruising through an Atlantic City casino, we're now stuck in drab suburbia. Then, no one ever accused De Palma of knowing when enough is enough; now he can no longer tell whom he's ripping off.
It feels as though we're watching a student-film re-enactment of 2001 (particularly the scene in which Gary Lockwood jogs around the centrifuge) or outtakes from Apollo 13. (So much trouble, so little room!) Worse, it feels as though entire space sequences have been deleted: One minute, the survivors of Mars Two are clinging to the hull of a tiny refueling capsule orbiting Mars; the next, we're informed by the mission leader (an uncredited Armin Mueller-Stahl) that a capsule has mysteriously landed on Mars and that it could only be the work of one Jim McConnell. One can only assume that all the, uh, good stuff landed on the cutting-room floor, because it sure as hell didn't make it to Mars.