We are not alone. But we knew that. We’ve seen the spaceship landing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; we’ve seen the interplanetary lovefest of E.T. From sci-fi movies made by baby boomers who grew up reading Isaac Asimov and watching The Outer Limits, we know that all intelligent life in the universe wants to phone home. And this middle-aged desire to make movies about galaxies filled with nice new friends to play with can reduce even hard-nosed veteran filmmakers to awkward, babbling boys in the presence of NASA technical advisers.
Look what it’s done to Brian De Palma. Given a huge playroom and a toy box full of expensive sets, props, and special effects for Mission to Mars, the ice-cold director of The Fury and Snake Eyes, the pitiless blood-loving auteur of Carrie and Dressed to Kill, embarks on his first science-fiction thriller full of dig-my-snazzy-tracking-shot! braggadocio.
Make-believe rocket ships and space suits have rarely looked more authentic, and the weird disorientation of zero-gravity weightlessness seems right up the alley of a filmmaker who finds it terribly hard to sit still and let people experience an actual emotion or two, but who’s terribly interested in capturing the rhythms of havoc.
Mars itself, though, stuns De Palma silly. And, awestruck, he loses his own connection to gravity. (Robert Zemeckis went deeper in Contact; Stanley Kubrick went deepest in 2001: A Space Odyssey.) In a Star Wars-worshiping kid, such awkwardness is understandable. From the man who made Scarface, it makes for a scrubbed trip.
Mission to Mars is set in 2020, a future just near enough to taste. (The movie prides itself on being ”NASA-real”; manned landing may indeed be a reality by then, although experts predict it will happen unaccompanied by the horns and timpani of Ennio Morricone’s bombastic score.) Astronaut Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) and his crew set off to make history by touching down on the Red Planet, an assignment that should have gone to Luke’s best friend, Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise). But Jim is too psychologically delicate, still wincing over the death of his wife and fellow astronaut, Maggie (Kim Delaney). So Luke goes up while Jim watches from ground control, as do colleagues Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and his wife, Terri (Connie Nielsen). Woody and Terri, incidentally, are the smoochingest married couple in all of NASA, and wait till you see them do it weightless….
Well, something goes seriously wrong on Mars. So Jim, Woody, Terri, and utility astronaut No. 4, Phil (Jerry O’Connell), take off, psychologically ready or not, on a recovery mission. Woody and Terri, incidentally, lip-locking when they’re supposed to be pulling thrusters, are a setback to married couples everywhere who want to go into orbit together, professionally speaking.
Luke’s journey to Mars is fraught with fear and danger; Woody and Jim’s journey to Mars is fraught with even more fear and danger. And De Palma loves danger. Cocking his point of view from one side of the frame to the other, he noses in to give the sense of anxiety as well as to get close to the action when, for example, the rocket springs an air leak. (A frozen icicle of liquid that escapes the puncture hole and breaks off, turning slowly in deep space, echoes the famous tumbling-bone-to-spacecraft image in 2001.)
But the actors might as well be floating frozen stiffs too. With colorless, interchangeable characters uttering the generic sci-fi babble of screenwriters Jim Thomas, John Thomas, and Graham Yost (”You’re losing pressure, Jim. We could embolize!” ”Come on, people, let’s work the problem!” ”The universe is not chaos. It’s connection. Life reaches out to life!”), there’s not much opportunity for any serious acting, and none is required. That is, if you don’t count a few hard eyeball-to-eyeball stares through helmet visors as one says to another, ”Listen to me, goddamn it. You have to stop, and you have to stop now!” Even Sinise and Cheadle, two splendid performers who actually can express plenty without words — visors and all — are overcome by the dialogue.
Mission to Mars wants us to think about lofty things: the bravery of explorers, the ingenuity of our nation’s space program, the humility required to comprehend the possibility that we earthlings are not the be-all and end-all of creation. But De Palma’s film is too embarrassed, too jittery and self-conscious to hush up and pay attention. In the presence of profound questions, the filmmaker goes profoundly shallow. And the answers, ah, the answers: They’re right out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with De Palma waving, ”So long and thanks for all the fish!”