the Last Word in
|critical articles, interviews, author profiles, retro lists, genre essays, incisive media reviews|
Mission To Mars (2000)
Director: Brian De Palma
review by Peter Schilling
We used to be happy enough to watch people courageously venturing out into the universe but, now, audiences aren't satisfied unless these heroic astronauts die in marvellously contrived technological accidents. And, as with close generic rival, Red Planet, this Hollywood science fiction adventure describes an interplanetary space rescue that goes way off beam...
The main problem with serious sci-fi cinema of the post-Cold War period is that every spaced, or otherworldly, scenario tries to imitate or emulate 2001: A Space Odyssey. This would not be such a bad thing, except for the fact that most of them perform so badly it's become clear that today's filmmakers have missed the sharper points of Kubrick's artistic rendering of Clarke's vision, altogether. In films as varied in tone and approach as belated sequel, 2010, James Cameron's The Abyss, Disney's lamentable Verne update, The Black Hole, Ron Howard's whimsical Cocoon, the wholly derivative StarGate, plus at least two of Star Trek's theatrical outings, we have sadly witnessed the inspiring multiplicity of possible interpretations argued (over and over) for Kubrick's transcendental masterpiece, unthinkingly reduced to just one. In adopting the hard-SF affect of vintage Clarke - with their literal minded scripts and a slavish adherence to plot, instead of the postmodernist imagery of Kubrick - all these pictures collapse the immensities of poetic value into bland documentary style fiction. There is little or no sense of wonder - and so, without that most commendably essential SF trait, such genre narratives lack veracity and their human stories fail to convince.
Apart from Tarkovsky's mesmerising Solaris, the film that most successfully mimics the complex issues and monumental questions raised by 2001 is Robert Zemeckis' satire, Contact, while perhaps the only film equalling 2001's audacious and startling audio-visual power, to date, is Ken Russell's uncanny Altered States. Compare the eeriness of 2001's lunar excavation site or the moving death of HAL, with the humdrum revelations of Mission To Mars. This is a veritable carnival of space opera clichés that probably looked dated in the era of This Island Earth.
The manufactured discoveries of De Palma's lavishly produced yet forlornly empty drama have a disturbing tendency to cheapen grand SF notions to a vulgar simplicity, delivering a banal cartoon irrelevance (cribbed from God's cosmic joke book?) at the climax. Furthermore, corny dialogue, weak performances, and the artless staging of high quality visual effects deaden our interest in the fate of the mixed crew - although Connie (Gladiator) Nielsen gets my vote as the prettiest space babe yet. This is spectacle entirely without measurable substance, and the endangered astronauts' commentaries on screen events is wholly redundant, not least because clarity of action discredits itself in this nth generation photocopying of the Space Odyssey's stateliness and mystique.
And yet, if you truly enjoy SF as entertainment, there's doubtless something in this overstated piece that will appeal. A few scenes stick in one's mind like the précis of dark dreams. There's a back-to-the-womb immersion for Gary Sinise's widower 'Flash Gordon', and a couple of dizzying zero-g sequences for Jerry (Sliders) O'Connell and Tim Robbins - during which director De Palma cunningly toys with our sense of perspective and balance - that are enormous fun to see and study. Ennio Morricone's luxurious score generates a lush romanticism about the proceedings, so there's no disagreement from this reviewer to a crucial assertion that several emotionally hollow scenes benefit greatly from his proficient musical support.
In the end, though, Mission To Mars is a frustrating show. The predictable tragedy and fragile suspense barely roused me from the cynical critic's patented slump position so, unfortunately, a gaping yawn of tedium was rarely far away.
previously published online, VideoVista #26 - May 2001
Buy this at:
|home articles profiles interviews essays books movies competitions guidelines issues links archives contributors email|