When Mars Pathfinder lander on the red planet a few years ago, I was glued to the TV, eagerly awaiting those first pictures from the surface of that alien planet, and I was just as ecstatic as the scientists in mission control when grainy, low-resolution, black-and-white images started coming through. Beholding that now-famous real-color, 3D, panoramic image days later was nigh on a religious experience for me.
I was very upset when Mars Polar Lander recently went AWOL.
I love Mars. I wanna go to Mars. Mars is our frontier, the way that everything west of the Appalachians was to colonial Americans. And I wanna see it, if not through my own eyes, then through someone else’s, before I die.
So how else can I react to Mission to Mars but with enthusiasm? Here is a mostly scientifically accurate movie about the planet that actually looks as if it were filmed there. No, it’s not a perfect film — but as one of the like-minded friends with whom I saw Mission to Mars pointed out, we’re so hungry for real science fiction on film that we can forgive its flaws.
The year is 2020, and NASA is getting ready to launch two two-year-long missions to Mars, the second to follow on a year after the first. Events have transpired to bump astronaut Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise: Reindeer Games, The Green Mile) from the first mission, for which he has trained long and hard, a mission that is his life’s dream. But hey, Sinise is the star of the film — with top billing, no less (yea for Gary!) — so of course he’s gonna get to go to Mars some way or other. I found myself wishing, as the film opened, that audiences could forget, sometimes, who’s a big star and who isn’t, if just so we couldn’t predict who was gonna survive till the end credits, and who wasn’t.
But damned if Mission to Mars doesn’t defy the typical genre expectations about not only who lives and who dies but also the kinds of scenes you’d count on seeing in a story of grand adventure like this one. There is no big Neil Armstrong moment for the first human to walk on Mars — at least not one we get to see. When director Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes) first cuts to the red planet, the first team — headed by Luke Graham (Don Cheadle: Out of Sight, Bulworth) — has already been there for a while, poking around and exploring. (Who knew De Palma could make a movie this unshowy?) And when disaster strikes the Mars mission, don’t imagine you can guess how it’s going to resolve itself.
When contact is lost with the first team on Mars, NASA pushes forward the schedule of the follow-up team, changing its mission to one of rescue and recovery… or at least finding out what happened. So now commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Arlington Road, having the most fun onscreen since perhaps Bull Durham) doesn’t need the geologist he was supposed to take with him — he wants hotshot pilot Jim McConnell to come along. Woody’s wife, Dr. Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), and computer dude Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell: Scream 2, Jerry Maguire) round out his crew.
The big ol’ science geek in me got a lot of thrills out of Mission to Mars. The Martian vistas that De Palma treats us to are chills-inducing, they’re so beautiful — and so real looking. The wheeled space station orbiting Earth that serves as mission control may be stolen directly from 2001, but it’s even more believably realistic. I was totally delighted to see that realities like the cold equations of space travel (if you get that reference, you’ll love this movie) and the 20-minute time lag in communicating between Earth and Mars were not ignored, and were in fact used to build suspense. One terrific sequence contrasts the cool detachment with which scientists and astronauts do their work with the intense excitement of a disaster — the calm efficiency of Woody’s team as they do a practice run through the procedure for arriving at Mars is shattered by the high drama of sudden, life-threatening danger.
Sure, it’s almost science porn — yeah, baby: run those checklists! hard boot that computer! — and if you’re not the type to get a kick out of it, even if it isn’t gratuitous, you’ll probably be bored silly by Mission to Mars. And you’ll likely find it harder to ignore the movie’s flaws: the cornball ending that’s handled in as derivative and ham-fisted a manner as you could imagine, an instance of illogical behavior from a well-trained astronaut who should know better. Some have complained about the blatant product placement — M&Ms and Dr. Pepper obviously signed fat contracts — though I have to say that the products are at least used as plot devices: Dr. Pepper saves the day, in one scene, in a completely realistic way.
Mission to Mars is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great film. It sets the bar high for itself, though, and I’d much rather see a movie that shoots for the stars — no pun intended — and doesn’t quite make it than one that doesn’t even bother, which is why I’ll make fun of Mission to Mars with other serious science-fiction fans but defend it against civilians who trash it. This isn’t the film for the ages De Palma probably hoped it would be, but it is gonna be a guilty pleasure of mine for years to come.