Directed by Brian De Palma
Mission to Mars has ambitions, to be sure, but it’s also weighed down by cliches, forced exposition, flat characters and a reluctance to explain itself even though that’s not always a bad thing. In some movies it’s best not to say too much, but you flirt with the risk of not explaining enough and making it feel like you pulled a fast one on the audience. Mission to Mars, in act 1, deals with such crappy exposition (guy with death wife, guy obsessed with sex, guy struggling with leaving a family behind even though we never hear from them again), and then in act 3 everything kind of comes out of nowhere. The story, about that mission to Mars, ultimately deals with aliens from whom we have apparently descended.
And to be frank, part of me was moved by what happened in the final thrust of the movie, but it felt incredibly manipulative. So I can’t tell if this is a movie that, in my mind, suffered from a large ambition in scope or laziness in execution.
The year is 2020, and we follow a group of astronauts headed to Mars. Among these astronauts there are a lot of familiar faces, like Don Cheadle, Tim Robbins, Lieutenant Dan, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O’Connell. The first 10-15 minutes or so deals with a barbecue for the astronauts in which we’re told a whole lot of information that only matters because we know it’s going to come up later. For example, Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen are married, Gary Sinise’ wife (also an astronaut) is dead, Don Cheadle is… well I forget exactly, but he has a son who is reluctant to see him go, and Cheadle tells him it will be okay, and that’s the end of that.
The story really begins when we jump forward a year in time. Don Cheadle leads a crew of four people on Mars. They discover a possible indication of life, and then a sand monster (like something from The Mummy) reveals itself, killing everyone but Don Cheadle. It’s a brutal sequence, one in which one person’s face is smashed in with a rock and another is spun around and around so quickly that his limbs fly off.
The rest of the crew, not on Mars, discover the incident and set off to save their friend. Along the way, they discover that the sand monster, in its wake, revealed a large sculpture of a face on the surface of Mars. As the small crew (Connie Nielsen, Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, Jerry O’Connell) head to the planet, Tim Robbins dies while saving the rest of his crewmates. His death, like the others so far, is pretty traumatizing, especially for a young kid, which I was when I first saw this movie. I had no idea I’d ever seen this movie until I saw the spinning guy lose his limbs, and it came back to me. That and Tim Robbins frozen, bloated corpse face were the only things I remembered about this movie, somewhere deep within my mind.
These deaths, while shocking and kind of exciting in how impactful they felt, didn’t fit the rest of the tone of this film. I get that you want to show how dangerous this all is, especially in light of the hope at the end of the tunnel, but it felt so manufactured. In each death scene, the characters didn’t do enough to survive. In the first one, the sand monster is pretty clearly a threat, yet the entire crew just stands there, waiting to die apparently. And in Tim Robbins’ death scene, he is nearly saved by his wife except that the rope she sends his way is a few feet short. There was so much deliberation about whether or not he could be saved, and in the end all that time proves very wasteful when he clearly could have been saved all along if they had only been smart about it.
These deaths irritated me because they’re meant to show how difficult and dangerous this mission is. But then the crew arrives on Mars and finds Don Cheadle suffering from something like space madness. But then the crew snaps him back to reality in the span of a few minutes. This again felt very cheap. They just wanted a scene for Cheadle to look crazy, making you think they lost another astronaut, but you know, he’s just fine.
In the end, the crew enters the large face sculpture, and they come into a blank white space, like something from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then they walk into a 3D planetarium, which would be cool if they weren’t already in space. And then an alien shows up and tells them how Mars was once a vibrant planet, like Earth, but then an asteroid destroyed it, and life forms were sent out to Earth which became evolved life as we know it now.
And you know what? That’s a nice explanation. I think that’s a cool premise, the idea that Mars was once an Earth-like planet that died years and years and years ago. But that has no real connection to the rest of the movie. The explanation in act 3 could have been absolutely anything, and it wouldn’t have affected the rest of the film in any way.
But at the same time, I kind of like this explanation. There is some set up for this kind of payoff in the sense that we have been looking for signs of life on Mars and in our galaxy for sometime, and the idea that the life we’re looking for ultimately made us is kind of cool. What’s most interesting about this idea is that we are really the life we’ve been searching for. Gary Sinise (and his dead wife in flashbacks) talks about the importance of finding new worlds. So he decides to stay with the Martians while the rest of the astronauts return to Earth. But Gary Sinise, aren’t we that new world? He’s so concerned with where we’re headed yet he ends up where we were, in a way.
A lot of this film felt very underdeveloped, like it was some high school kid’s story idea. I think, again, that there are some exciting ideas, but the characters are incredibly broad, like cardboard cut outs with characteristics written on them in sharpie: “WIDOWER,” “SEX ADDICT,” “BLACK,” “MARRIED,” “MARRIED TO THE GAME,” WOMAN,” stuff like that. None of the characters felt essential, and instead felt like focus tested casting (I’m not saying these aren’t good actors, they are very good, but these roles are not interesting). What’s the most irritating about these characters, I suppose, is that they only have just enough characteristics to separate them from each other, but ultimately they’re all the same. They’re each meant to be idealistic heroes, and heroes aren’t always that interesting.
What’s wrong with these characters? Nothing. Sure they suffer throughout the story, but the story would be the same with any character in these roles. They do not make the movie go, they’re just there while it happens.