Thursday, September 10, 2009

De Palma Blog-a-thon: Revisiting Mission to Mars

My contribution to Tony's Brian De Palma Blog-a-thon is up over at Cinema Viewfinder. It's a little lightweight compared to the other (excellent) articles up, but I'm still happy with it.

The entire article is re-posted below:

Has there been a Brian De Palma film that tries harder to distance itself from being a "Brian De Palma film" than Mission to Mars? Along with The Bonfire of the Vanities (both, coincidentally, rank at the bottom of De Palma's filmography over at Rotten Tomatoes, with 24% favorable), it seems the least fitted to the themes and styles he's experimented with throughout his career. It also has the dubious personal honor of being one of only two films (the other being Francis Ford Coppola's unfairly maligned Bram Stoker's Dracula) that caused my wife to exclaim mid-film, "This was one of the stupidest movies I've ever seen."

That was nine years ago, when the film was released, and was the moment in time that instigated me to re-visit the film with as part of Cinema Viewfinder's De Palma Blog-A-Thon.

For the uninitiated, Mission to Mars is about a manned mission to the Red Planet (led by Don Cheadle, who's probably the best thing in the movie) that goes south when the team is seemingly attacked by a mysterious presence that results in the exposure of an enormous, alien face carved out of the rock. A crack team comprised of Tim Robbins, Jerry O'Connell, Connie Nielsen and Gary Sinise (who was originally slated to lead the mission until the death of his wife caused him to be taken off the mission), attempt to rescue the mission but wind up crashing on Mars, where they find Cheadle miraculously alive, and discover the mystery behind the stone face and the beings who carved it.

I only recently discovered that Mission to Mars was in part based on a Disney attraction and, in hindsight, makes the overall visual style of the film more understandable, if not better. It opens with a signature De Palma sequence—a single crane shot that slowly weaves its way through a barbecue party for Cheadle and his crew. The camera leisurely weaves its way through the main players, setting up the same tired group stereotyping: the laid back leader and his awesome wife who's almost but not quite as as capable as he is; the wise-cracking stud/comic relief; only cutting away when we get to Gary Sinise—the hot shot damaged hero.

These slow, continuous takes appear throughout Mission to Mars, and it's hard not to be impressed by some of the moments De Palma wrings out of the story. The space station monitoring the mission is introduced in a sequence that echoes the opening shot, tracking down corridors and following the walls until arriving at the command center. Some of the effects shots are particularly good—De Palma wisely backs away from the action, letting the moments unfurl methodically, as when the face's "security system" makes its appearance:

A later scene, inside the stone face, is reminiscent of Kubrick in its pristine, clinical presentation:

But nothing can overcome a script that relies too heavily on tired cliches and superfluous exposition. Plot points are telegraphed miles in advance (did anyone doubt the whole "candy DNA" gag would be important later on?); exposition is crammed into every scene; and even the effective set pieces, such as when the rescue team are forced to abandon their ship and try to manually latch onto to an orbiting satellite before burning up in Mars' atmosphere, are ruined with corny dialogue and over-used exclamations.

All of which is a shame because under all the silliness is an attempt to make an interesting science fiction film, as opposed to a sci-fi popcorn movie. Maybe not GREAT science fiction, but at least something that tries to stand out against what was popular at the time (the similarly dismal Red Planet came out the same year). Mission to Mars fails.

I have to wonder why, seeing it again, what was it in the story or the concept that caused Disney/Touchstone to reach out and say, "You know who'd be a good choice for this? Brian De Palma," and then bury what De Palma is known for doing in a rote, bland movie that was entirely typical of everything else that was out there.

Randoms ("borrowed" from Matt Dessem's wonderful Criterion Contraption)
  • For a science fiction film, there are dozens of odd choices and inaccuracies that pull you out of the film. Movement on the planet feels decidedly ordinary - there is no discernible gravitational difference between Mars and Earth. In the space station, zero gravity asserts itself only when it's needed to provide moments like the candy DNA strand or the dance between Robbins and Nielsen.
  • The oddest choice, the one that pulled me completely out of the film, was the decision to have everyone's voices sound perfectly normal when inside their spacesuits. It sounds like they're all in a room talking together. Quite possibly the best radio reception to ever be used in space.
  • Gary Sinise wears A LOT of eye shadow in this film. It's kind of disturbing.
  • Although parenthood has tempered her vitriol, my wife still hates Mission to Mars, feeling it's actively trying to make her dumber. Note to self: DO NOT ask her to re-visit Bram Stoker's Dracula with you.
Just when you think you're doing something original (like who the heck wants to talk about Mission to Mars?), you find later that someone has indeed done it, and done it better. There's a great article over at Reverse Shot that essentially makes the same points, albeit with more flair and better overall writing ability.

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