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Mission to Mars   D+

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost, Lowell Cannon
Cast: Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, Kim Delaney, Tim Robbins.

Review by Rob Vaux

Interior, Brian De Palma's office, March 1999:

"Boy, those tracking shots sure are gold: instant auteurial stamp, and I don't even have to think about it! Let Spielberg have his Oscars -- I've got French theory on my side...

"But I gotta stay sharp. I slid by on Snake Eyes, but movies are changing and I gotta change with them. Gotta be fresh, do something original for my next film. Can't do those Hitchcock rip-offs anymore, too passé. [RUSTLING SOUND AS HE OPENS THE PAPER] Let's see... who's dead...?"

Brian De Palma isn't the least talented filmmaker out there; he's got enough competence to make things interesting and early in his career, he actually made some tremendously good movies. But somewhere along the line, he decided it'd be easier to copy others rather than develop his own voice. Shots are lifted, plots stolen, and any hope of his emergence as a serious filmmaker vanishes beneath a flood of Xerox machines. Don't believe me? Check out his latest opus, Mission to Mars, and listen for Stanley Kubrick turning over in his grave.

It's 2020 and NASA is sending its first manned mission to the Red Planet. Led by Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), they leave behind their eco-friendly world of electric cars and cardboard beer cans for remote cameras and soil samples. But after a few happy weeks on the surface, contact with the mission is suddenly lost -- ending with garbled, panicked transmission from Luke hinting at some dark, unexposed secret. It's up to can-do commander (Tim Robbins), his zero-g-boogying wife (Connie Nielsen) and the requisite hotshot pilot who just lost his wife to cancer but is still the best damn stick jockey we've got (Gary Sinese) to launch a rescue mission.

While not obvious at first glance, this dubious framework bears a more than passing resemblance to 2001. As the film progresses, the resemblance becomes a full-bore carbon copy. Everything from the ships to the long-distance crises to the dark secret the first mission stumbled upon comes straight from the earlier movie. De Palma compounds this by utilizing the exact same shots, camera angles, and scientific gizmos that Kubrick used. There's even a happy birthday wish by vidphone, although it's far more grating here than in 2001. De Palma could have helped his cause by at least acknowledging the homage; a little post-modern tongue-in-cheek would have been welcome. As it is, he plays everything straight-faced and serious, and you find yourself thinking wistfully of HAL 9000 when you should be concentrating on the film at hand.

Would that Kubrick were the only voice De Palma steals. There's pieces of Close Encounters, Dune, Star Wars, even James Cameron's The Abyss scattered liberally throughout this mess. It doesn't get any better if you can ignore its painful dependence on earlier works: the film almost completely fails on its own merits. It hurts watching good actors like Sinese and Cheadle try to work with dialogue that would embarrass Tony Todd; we know people spout feeble witticisms in real life, but that doesn't mean we want to listen to them when we go to the movies. The action scenes lack the fundaments of tension, and master composer Ennio Morricone's earnest score is completely out of place amid the ludicrous plot. The whole thing ends with a revelation that every ad, preview, and promotional flyer has already blown, leaving the lingering suspicion that you could have just watched the commercial and saved yourself eight bucks. At least the matte painters managed to produce some pretty Martian landscapes to look at.

Somewhere inside Brian De Palma is a good director, screaming to get out. Occasionally, he escapes and turns in a great piece of filmmaking. Not this time. Silly, turgid and devoid of even the hints of original thinking, Mission to Mars is a testament to shameless creative theft. Hey Brian, if you want to steal from a master, that's great -- but try to file the serial numbers off before you sell it.

Review published 03.17.2000.

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