Monday, June 8, 2015

Melts In Your Mouth, Not On Mars

Sometimes it’s hard to decide if a film is worth writing about here on this blog. Sometimes I’ll rent a Very Long Wait, seemingly Doll’s House-ready DVD from Netflix with my notepad ready and waiting only to realize I have nothing to say and even less to remember about it ten minutes after the credits roll. On other days, I’ll queue up an action adventure movie with no pretense of blogging only to discover that includes Tim Curry hamming up a bizarre Eastern European accent, copious lasers, gorillas drinking martinis, and pretty much everything else that someone like me treasures in cinema.

I decided long ago that horror is a subjective term on these fronts (I didn’t do a month of Animals Doing Human Stuff for nothing you know) and don’t always require that genre classification for coverage. This leads us to today’s hard-to-finger flick, 2000’s Mission to Mars. Knowing it was directed (quite oddly) by Brian De Palma gave me some inkling that I might get some mileage. Realizing it was a Disney release put that into doubt. Seeing, within 20 minutes, a character caught in a windstorm, twisted like a rung out dishcloth and de-limbed and decapitated in the process made me think, “Oh! It’s dark stuff!”

Then discovering it got a PG rating made me question almost everything.

Quick Plot: In the near future of 2020, a bunch of astronauts have a barbecue to celebrate the imminent launch of the first manned mission to mars. More importantly, Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) is sad to NOT go to Mars because his wife, who was named Maggie, got sick and died before Jim and his wife, who was named Maggie, could go to Mars, a place Maggie, Jim’s dead wife, really wanted to go to (her space helmet would have read “Maggie”).

Note that I tell you about Jim and his wife (named Maggie) because the movie makes a point of doing so about 9 times within the first 9 minutes of its running time.

Anyway, sad Maggie-less Jim stays behind while Luke (Don Cheadle) heads up with a bunch of Russians. Just as the team discovers a trace of water, a brutal Tatooine-ish sandstorm hits, knocking out a few crew members and brutally DE-LIMBING another one.

Just your standard Act I ending for any PG-rated family flick.

After sending out a muddled transmission, Luke loses communication with earth, prompting a rescue mission manned by Jim (but not his dead wife Maggie), Woody (Tim Robbins, with the ominous “...And Tim Robbins credit), Woody’s wife Terri (Connie Nielsen), and Phil (Jerry “I’ll Always Be Vern” O’Connell). A rupture almost kills the crew, but some fast thinking by Jim (widower of Maggie) and a packet of prominently labeled Dr Pepper saves the day. Later, more mechanical trouble leads to a heavy Gravity-esque conclusion. Clearly, this ship didn’t pack enough soft drinks.

They did, thankfully, pack a whole lot of M&Ms. M&Ms are almost as important in this movie as Jim’s dead wife Maggie and her presumed favorite cola, Dr Pepper. 

I’m being rather hard on Mission To Mars and its rather odd product placement, but the fact that these items drew so much attention to themselves was simply too much not to note. One must wonder if the people at the M&Ms headquarters felt like this was their big chance to right the wrong of E.T.’s infamous Reese’s Pieces glory.

Anyway, back to the film at hand, I...have no real idea what to say. The script’s multiple writing credits is hardly surprising, since Mission To Mars jumps from tone to tone like an energetic kid who’s had too much soda and candy (well, specifically, Dr Pepper and original M&Ms). We go from earnest astronaut drama to heady sci-fi to body-ripping horror to Close Encounters whimsy. It’s rather dizzying.

Mission To Mars is not a cheap film. While some of its CGI heavy effects have aged tragically, the basic landscape of Mars looks fantastic. The cast is littered with Oscar nominated talent. The score is (maybe over-)composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone. And yet I have no idea what it adds up to.

I mentioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind earlier because that’s easily the closest companion piece I can think of. Both films have to balance the dark possibilities of the expanded universe with a more gentle perspective of embracing other life forms. Mission To Mars, unfortunately, just doesn’t feel like it earns its ending because the path to it has gone in so many directions. It’s an odd one. 

High Points
Well, there are a lot of GOOD things about this film. Great cast who can sell the occasionally terrible dialog (DID I MENTION THAT MY WIFE MAGGIE IS DEAD AND SHE WAS AN ASTRONAUT AND HER NAME WAS MAGGIE BUT SHE’S DEAD NOW?). Beautiful art direction. Believable sounding science...

Low Points
But, well, aside from not knowing who should be watching it, the film is also occasionally quite dull

Lessons Learned
In the future, young lotharios will dress like Danny Zuko

Some couples dance, but the cooler ones go to Mars

Evolution began with alligators, which turned into dinosaurs, which turned into wooly mammoths, which turned into buffalo

Nothing is impossible when you're millions of miles from earth in a giant face

I was curious to see how someone with Brian De Palma’s sensibilities would handle the bigger material of Mission To Mars. The answer is ultimately kind of blah. There are definitely sparks of intrigue in the film, but it’s ultimately more interesting to see what doesn’t work than what does. De Palma fans will enjoy spotting a few trademarks (including a long opening tracking shot) and space-centric sci-fi fans will appreciate a lot of the film’s touches, but the final product is a rather messy thing.


  1. This is one of those films I remember a huge being made when it was released in one of those wonderful years were we get two versions of the same movie (ie. Deep Impact / Armageddon) which this film being countered by "Red Planet" (also not seen).
    The dust cloud part bizzarly has me more curious though to watch it than anything else I've seen to do with it.

    1. I always think Red Planet was actually the same movie as Mission To Mars!

  2. Red Planet has the explorer robot that has a "Kill Everyone" setting, and Carrie-Anne Moss in a white tanktop.

    Everything else is a blur because I watched it on a Greyhound bus with no audio.

    1. Oooooh, I do appreciate robots that are designed with the KE switch. It demonstrates a lot of forward thinking on the part of the engineer.