The red planet was never so drab. Mr. De Palma's circa 2020 adventure about a rescue effort to Mars after the first manned mission winds up shrouded in mysterious catastrophe has virtually no soul of its own. An astonishingly derived script by Lowell Cannon and Jim Thomas sees to that. But the film's biggest sin is the commission of sci-fi heresy by ripping off Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although the director may see it as an homage, the discomfort is palpable when the spacecraft's onboard computer sounds a bit too much like the former movie's nefarious HAL 9000. With its blatant copying of mood and temper forcing comparison, even the special effects here fall shamefully short of the classic's pre-computer visuals.
The tip off that this outer space excursion is doomed to failure comes in the very first scene. At a barbecue held at the home of Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) and his wife (Elise Neal), the astronaut banters and chides playfully with his two best NASA buddies, Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) and Woody Blake (Tim Robbins). When each tells the other why he should be chosen for the title mission, the expository conversation is embarrassingly obvious and painfully without style. i.e.: "You should be the first one on Mars. You've wanted it ever since you were six." "No," says the fellow spaceman, "you've wanted it ever since you were 5. It should be you."
Of course, in Beau Geste fashion they both then turn to widower McConnell and agree that, since being the first on Mars was a dream he cherished with his wife (Kim Delaney in flashback and on video), it should be him. Problem is, Jim has had a cloud of uncertainty hovering over him ever since his loss. Armin Mueller-Stahl as the crusty flight chief, the world's weight on his shoulders, sadly promulgates the notion that Jim's best years are now behind him. Do we smell a tale of redemption?
Such uneasy plot contrivances and self-conscious dialogue provide a renewed respect for the hokey Ed Wood era of science fiction, when a spaceship made of aluminium foil wrapped around a cardboard tube was honest in comparison.
Compounding the script's guile, it seems Jim and Maggie weren't the only married duo on NASA's payroll. There's also Woody and Terri (Connie Nielsen), eager to join Jim on mission #2 after the numero uno errand goes awry. Quick question, though: Did these folks meet before they joined up? Because if they didn't, then maybe NASA could bolster its coffers by doubling as a matchmaking service.
Naturally, the big trip ultimately leads to pretentiously vast discoveries about the origins of life. (No sense going all the way to Mars if that doesn't happen, right?) Hint: There's a Sphinx-like structure sitting in the red dessert, and (drum roll, please) something may be in it. Now, that's a new one, huh?
De Palma fashions these revelatory scenes with all the subtlety of a tent revival. The only thing missing is Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz) calling the shots behind the curtain.
Rather curiously, the accomplished helmer of Dressed To Kill and Carrie seems to be directing by omission. The risk-free result is sadly without novelty and oddly uneventful. Those are good qualities in an accountant, but hardly a recommendation for a science fiction film.
As if to make up for its failed action angle, Mission To Mars attempts some rather ineffectual tugging at the heartstrings. First, there's the manipulative, soap opera-like handling of Jim's widower status. And then there's the equally mawkish depiction of Connie and Woody's cutting edge love affair, the constellations for a backdrop, the limitless universe as their cave of Tristan and Isolde. But, try as the filmmaker might to make their momentous dance of weightlessness seem like the pinnacle of romanticism, odds are your Aunt Ida and Uncle Sid made a more convincing showing at the last bar mitzvah reception.
Taking a cue from the rest of the film, the acting performances manage to be perfectly mediocre. In fact, most of the cast projects only two emotions: consternation and relief. Mr. Sinise does, however, manage to add a wincing smile to his relief mode, evincing a shard of ebullience in one supposedly uplifting scene. But even an Academy Award performance couldn't save this film. Possessing no significant character of its own and uncertain of its destination, Mission To Mars wobbles out of orbit, crashes, and burns.