Rated PG - Running Time: 1:50 - Released 3/10/00

Although many recent space films have relied heavily on special effects while skimping on plot and characters to grasp their share of the viewers' dollars (such titles as Armageddon, Lost In Space, and Supernova spring vigorously to mind), Mission To Mars is one that does not surrender quite as readily to this temptation. Brian DePalma's first spacefaring opus does not hold a candle to, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Contact, but it does deliver a semblance of plausibility to a surreal story. This is thanks in large part to the director's well-tested style, and the noteworthy talent of his several principal actors, such as Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, and Don Cheadle, of which there is not a slouch in the bunch. It is not thanks to the script. Penned by Lowell Cannon (story), Jim and John Thomas (story and screenplay), and Graham Yost (screenplay), the text is arguably the film's weakest aspect, and it's no wonder. This is Cannon's first film project, the brothers Thomas' previous oevres include Wild Wild West and Predator, and Yost is responsible for such undistinguished action fare as Hard Rain, Broken Arrow, and the abysmal Firestorm.

The date is not given at the film's opening, but one must assume it's some time around the mid-21st century. The first manned mission to Mars is about to lift off, and we learn through a badly written opening barbecue scene that the commander is Luc Goddard (Cheadle). His two best friends, Jim McConnell (Sinise) and Woody Blake (Robbins), will be monitoring the mission from the World space station. Six months later, when the ship arrives at its destination, the crew establishes its base camp and a greenhouse designed to provide a miniature, self-sustaining atmosphere in which they can work without artificial breathing apparatus. But the investigation of a strange object near them leads to a catastrophic event: a giant Hoover sucks up three crewmembers. Luc is left alone, and his friends back home plan an immediate rescue (well, as immediate as you can get with six months of traveling time).

On the way, several things go wrong, but despite damage to their ship and the loss of more crewmembers, the guys finally arrive and find Luc looking more like Bob Marley than an astronaut. And it is then that they discover the incredible secret that he already knows, the secret that will change all their lives, and in fact, the lives of everyone on our fair planet.

Brian DePalma's apparent lack of an inner ear lends itself perfectly to space photography. The scenes in weightlessness are an elegant ballet, reminiscent of 2001's similar scenes, which were indeed set to "The Blue Danube." In many of his films, there are times when one has trouble discerning which way is up; in zero-gravity it doesn't matter. Of course, Stephen Burum's beautiful cinematography aided in bringing DePalma's spacey vision to life, and the computer-generated special effects are impressive.

Where this film fails is on the human side. The principal actors do well enough given what they have to work with; Robbins is the only one who actually attempted to convey any sort of personality, but maybe DePalma thought that astronauts are just like that. The dialogue is often stilted and some really ridiculous plot elements imply that neither DePalma nor his four-man writing team are terribly familiar with the physics of space. I mean, a computer's voice slowing down because of a lack of oxygen? Come on. But flaws aside, it's clear that at least an attempt was made not to count on big explosions and beautiful scenery to sell the film. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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