Thursday, September 10, 2009

Visions of Life: Mission to Mars

This piece is being cross-published at Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder as part of The Brian De Palma Blogathon. The blogathon runs from September 7-16.

One of the most inexplicably hated movies of this past decade, Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars is not only "not that bad", it might even be great. The film presently rests with a score of 34 on Metacritic (which translates to "generally unfavorable reviews", to those who don't speak the language), and a confounding, outrageous, wholly unjustifiable 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, much of this hatred arises from the fact that the movie was marketed one way (a space adventure from the man who made Mission: Impossible just a few years earlier), while actually being a thoughtful, humanist, post-modern take on science fiction lore. And I feel it's the film's unique encapsulation of the science-fiction genre on film that may have jarred some at first; it has the grand, cosmic mystery of Kubrick, the humanistic benevolence of Spielberg, and the spirit of science fiction pulp and B-movies. Tim Robbins' character Woody Blake wears a Flash Gordon rocketship around his neck, and like the Robbins character, Mission to Mars keeps the adventurous spirit of b-movies close to its heart; but it's more than a celebration of trash, it's a transcending of it. So many action spectacles are given a free pass in spite of more often than not being nothing more than B-movies with high production values, but Mission to Mars understands the child-like sense of wonder these films would tap in to --- De Palma has never been an artist who denied cinema's more base pleasures --- but De Palma does much more here than dress-up empty material with CGI.

The movie begins with one of De Palma's patented long takes (complete with some Buckwheat Zydeco on the soundtrack), but it's so much more than showing off technique --- he introduces us to all the film's principle characters here, the two teams of astronauts that will be the first human beings to set foot on Mars. They each consist of three men, one woman ("same handicap", one character quips at the beginning of the film, but women being equal to men is one of the key elements of Mission to Mars), and this is fitting, as gender dynamics have always been a key element of De Palma's work --- and in Mission to Mars, gender dynamics define space exploration, as husband and wife couples are chosen to give support and strength to one another during the long duration of the voyage. It's at this point that the movie introduces us to Jim McConell (Gary Sinise); an astronaut who, along with his wife, was slated to be on the first manned mission to Mars. However, it is revealed that Sinise's wife got sick and passed away, and he had to unfortunately give up his and his wife's life-long dream of going to Mars in order to be at his side while she died (apparently, playing characters who almost-but-not-quite go to space is Sinise's specialty). For a movie that so many reviewers wrote off as 'poorly written', the dramatic elements of Mission to Mars are poignant and extremely well played by the film's performers. Yes, it's a film that wears it's heart on its sleeve --- but is that really such a bad thing? It's one of the most earnest movies of the decade, so enamored with its central concept and characters that I personally find it difficult not to love it as well.

Mission to Mars, with its large-scale subject and budget, also gives De Palma great material with which to flex his directorial muscle; the incredible special effects and set design make it one of the few movies, outside of 2001, that have actually taken me to space. There is one sequence in a spaceship where the characters dance to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away", and the camera is as weightless as the characters. Even if you don't like the movie I defy you (seriously) to tell me that this sequence, at once romantic and bittersweet (romantic in that it shows how in love the Robbins character is with his wife, bittersweet in that it highlights the loss felt by the Sinise character), doesn't at least bring a smile to your face. The sequence that shows the Mars Rover exploring the Mars Terrain (one that recalls R2-D2's arrival on Tattoine from Star Wars), with Ennio Morricone's soothing, beautiful music on the soundtrack, uncannily recreates the surface of Mars in gorgeous widescreen. Brian De Palma has always been a film maker who operated within the Hollywood system, all the while subverting it within his films, and it speaks to what an idiosyncratic artist he is that he managed to bring his unique moral stamp to a large-scale Hollywood spectacle.

The film strips away the usual xenophobia of space action/adventure movies by portraying aliens as benevolent givers of life, as opposed to relegating them to a generic monster role; "Life reaches out for life" is the film's simple, eloquent, and profound mantra --- and it's the exact notion that so many film's on this subject fail to grasp. It's so easy for films to give us empty spectacle that offer nothing in terms of ideas or subtext, but for a film to challenge our ideas about life, the universe, and everything (to borrow from Douglas Adams) is a rare thing that deserves praise. Of course, this is Brian De Palma we're talking about, so these ideas come from within the firm boundaries of genre; but the subtext is still there, and it's still powerful. Mission to Mars expands on popular folk-lore by making the so-called "Stone Face of Mars" (something that allegedly 'proved' there was life on Mars that was proved to be an optical illusion right around the time of the film's release) a central plot point; one character says "In all our myths, in every human culture, Mars has always held a special attraction. I mean, what if that means something?" Mission to Mars assumes that the fact that Mars has tapped into the popular imagination in the manner it has does mean something, and so expands on that pop-mythology by making Martians the creators of life on Earth; it is revealed at the end of the movie (set inside the 'Stone Face') that upon the destruction of Mars by an asteroid that Martians 'seeded' life on Earth. An inspired CGI sequence gives a brief history of Earth, with the first single celled organisms evolving into fish, then reptiles, then mammals, then humans --- this causes Sinise to realize that we are one with not only one another, but with the Martians as well "We're them, they're us" is the film's ultimate realization --- all life coming full circle and being intimately related to one another. Then Gary Sinsise's Jim McConnell, like Richard Drefyfuss' Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is given a choice between remaining with his human compatriots or hopping in the Martian spaceship into the great unknown, and Sinise makes the decision to go on the quest of eternal enlightenment; the decision many of us would probably like to make, if we weren't too scared of what we might find.

Mission to Mars is, ultimately, a supremely good-natured, highly entertaining adventure film --- but one that understands the essence of science ficition, which is ideas about existence and humanity. De Palma gives us all this in the guise of a Hollywood action movie (one released by Disney with a PG rating, no less), but when you take De Palma's career as a whole and realize that he's always been as much defined by popular modalities of storytelling as by his own, highly idiosyncratic style, Mission to Mars feels less like an anomaly and more like a flawless distillation of themes he had previously tackled; at once paying homage to genre and expanding on it. The cosmic perspective of Mission to Mars would pave the way for his next film, Femme Fatale, which instilled his preferred genre (the thriller) with similar cosmological and existential queries presented in Mission to Mars. It has marked the beginning of a bold new phase of De Palma's career, one that would challenge the popular notions about the kind of director he is ('plagiarist', 'stylist', and so on) and enrich his art with bold, dazzlingly self-assured technique.


Adam Zanzie said...

One more thing: it makes me giddy that De Palma has the nerve to end the film with the text, "The End". Usually you only see that in animated films nowadays. Like I said, De Palma can be John Ford when he feels like it, and that's always clever.

"Have a great ride, Jim."

He said she said...

I too do not despise Mission to Mars. But I cannot say that the conclusion of the film or the certain inevitability of it all supplied me with the same level of profundity as it did you. Mission to Mars has several very memorable sequences, the Tim Robbin's death scene, the dancing scene, and a couple other memorable sequences I can't seem to recall.


Ryan Kelly said...

Well, He said, this is a concept that has always intrinsically appealed to me, and one precious few sci-fi movies actually deal with. As I said, so many sci-fi movies are just xenophobic about the idea of extra-terrestrial life, so they blow us to bits, we blow them to bits, and no one really learns anything. Mission to Mars is all about the lessons that could be learned from fellow-life in the universe, and asks of us to be open to the idea of it. Even if the film goes about this central premise a tad clumsily, it's still one that I find extremely moving.

Eric R. said...

I don't know. When I had last seen Mission to Mars (which was a long while ago) I kind of liked it but definitely didn't hate it like so many others seem to. Now, after reading your post, I have been reminded about a lot of the film's scenes. Thinking back on it, yes there were some scenes that were filmed brilliantly but then again I also recalled other scenes that weren't as involving as others. I wish I could pinpoint which ones but my memory is letting me down at the moment.

But I can now understand that after all this time Mission to Mars has never crossed my mind, only until now due to your post. And the reason for that was that despite it having it's moments (the last scene with the Martian being my favorite) I remember feeling a lesser sense of involvement. Yes, it is very nice to see this sci-fi film stand aside from all those xenophobic ones and to recieve its message about how life reaches out to other life, but it's still not as effective as something like Close Encounters for example. I don't mean to compare it to a film like Close Encounters which is near the best of its genre, but I didn't feel that emotional connection as I did for that film. Yes, Mission to Mars has intriguing ideas, but doesn't do as good a job of keeping us emotionally connected to the characters, which as a result partly diminishes its presentation of its ideas as well.

Ryan Kelly said...

Eric, I agree that it's not as great a film as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of my very favorite films. A lot of people complain that they can't feel a connection to the characters --- but for me, the performances and the great direction do provide that emotional link, though I'll agree that it's perhaps not the best written script in history. Not nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be, but I don't know how much I would like the movie if it were in another director's hands.

Amelia said...

I don't like this movie at all. Yes it might influence sci-fic movie fans but to me its completely unrealistic. Thanks for writing and sharing this decent review.
Mission to Mars Movie

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