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"MISSION TO MARS"
(2000) (Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-fi: After something terribly goes wrong with the first manned mission to Mars, a crew of four astronauts sets out on a rescue mission to the Red Planet.
PLOT:
It's the year 2020 and NASA has finally landed its astronauts on Mars. Led by Commander Luke Graham (DON CHEADLE), the small team of explorers discovers an anomaly on the surface that eventually kills everyone but Graham who just manages to send out a frantic distress call.

Jim McConnell (GARY SINISE) is a fellow astronaut who Graham replaced when McConnell's wife and mission partner, Maggie (KIM DELANEY) got sick and died. Sensing the urgent need to rescue his good friend, McConnell and another astronaut buddy, Commander Woody Blake (TIM ROBBINS), convince NASA official Ray Beck (an uncredited ARMIN MUELLER-STAHL) to send out a small rescue team. Beck reluctantly agrees, and thus McConnell, Blake, his wife Dr. Terri Fisher (CONNIE MIELSEN) and mission specialist Phil Ohlmyer (JERRY O'CONNELL) set out a long and dangerous rescue mission.

After a six-month journey, the rescue team finally arrives at the Red Planet only to encounter various dangers and unbelievable discoveries as they search for Graham, hoping that he may still be alive.

OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
Back in 1971, the folks at Disney World introduced their precursor to the simulator ride, the Tomorrowland attraction, "Flight to the Moon." Of course, since Neil Armstrong and company had already stepped foot on the lunar surface two years earlier, the novelty of the attraction's story was somewhat lost. Thus, in 1975, the "ride" (that consisted of a less than impressive simulation inside a small auditorium with rocket sounds and vibrating seats if I remember correctly) was retooled and re-christened "Mission to Mars."

That seemed appropriate enough since we had yet to visit the Red Planet, but during the subsequent mid '90s retooling of Tomorrowland, the attraction was jettisoned (in favor of the more hip and interactive "ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter"). Whether that was just a decision whose time had come or a fortuitous premonition, there's probably little doubt that those at the world's number one theme park are glad "Mission to Mars" is gone since it would no doubt resurrect thoughts of the lame Touchstone Pictures release of the same name.

While some had thought that the big-budget film might have been the unofficial start of the "summer" movie season (due to its marquee cast and crew and the fact that the starting date of that season is moved up every year), there's now little doubt about why the film ended up in the early March release zone. That's because it's a really bad film that's about as exciting as a slow-moving asteroid that's run into and reformulated scenes from far superior sci-fi films.

Of course, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise if one is aware that the cat burglar of filmmaking, Brian De Palma, was at the helm. While the filmmaker has a distinctive and highly visualized approach in making his movies, and has delivered his share of well-made and entertaining pictures (such as "Carrie," "The Untouchables" and "Mission: Impossible"), he's best known - at least within filmmaking and fan circles - for either "borrowing" scenes from other movies or simply remaking them altogether.

Although it's obvious that not everything in his films has been lifted from others, it is quite clear that De Palma is a student or admirer of sorts of filmmakers ranging from Sergei M. Eisenstein (the stairs scene in "The Untouchables" was first done in "The Battleship Potemkin"), Michelangelo Antonioni (his "Blow Up" became "Blow Out") and his favorite, Alfred Hitchcock. Whether it be the master's experimentation with shooting continuous scenes ("Rope") or fabulously constructed films ("Rear Window"), De Palma has attempted to copy them in his ("Snake Eyes" and "Body Double" respectively).

That said, and since Hitchcock never made a sci-fi based space film, I was understandably curious about how this film would turn out. The answer, in short, is that it's rather bad, despite the director revisiting scenes from the likes of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Apollo 13," "The Abyss," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and even flops such as "Sphere."

As written by Jim Thomas & John Thomas ("Executive Decision," "Predator") and Graham Yost ("Speed," "Broken Arrow") (who work from a story by Lowell Cannon and the Thomas brothers), the film starts off with a mildly intriguing but certainly not novel premise about life possibly existing on Mars. Yet, it then slowly goes nowhere with that notion, eventually turning what could have been an interesting movie into a laughable disaster. One only had to listen to our preview audience breaking into theater-wide, hysterical laughter - at moments presumably intended to be serious or heartwarming - to realize just how bad the film becomes.

With only one decent sequence - where the astronauts must float from one spacecraft to another that's a kilometer or so away - and a mixed bag of special effects (some are decent despite looking familiar to those in last year's "The Mummy," while those representing the surface of Mars look more like what "Capricorn One" hypothesized than the "real" thing), the film offers absolutely nothing new to the genre. That is, unless you're a big fan of the supermarket tabloids and will find this film reinforcing stories such as "Scientists Find Face on Mars."

Beyond the unimaginative and derivative script, generally flat acting and its overall slow and non-involving tempo, what's most surprising about the film is that it's missing De Palma's visual flair. In fact, had one not known the filmmaker was involved, it would have been impossible to discern that fact.

Not even the talented cast (that made the mistake of signing up for this mess) can save the film. Due to the presence of stars such as Gary Sinise ("Reindeer Games," "Forrest Gump") and Tim Robbins ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Player"), as well as the uncredited Armin Mueller-Stahl ("The Third Miracle," "Jakob the Liar") and Don Cheadle ("Out of Sight," "Boogie Nights"), one keeps expecting/hoping/praying that things will get better, but unfortunately they never do.

Nor are the characters differentiated enough from one another to tell them apart, other than by gender and Jerry O'Connell ("Joe's Apartment," "Stand by Me") appearing as the token, but not very humorous or imaginatively written comic relief character.

Other problems include the filmmakers jettisoning some of the story's more interesting aspects. While it's usually a good idea to get right to the heart of the matter, the film's missing the obviously historic landing on Mars and ensuing first steps on the Red Planet, as well as information about the planet, such as gravitational forces, atmospheric conditions and temperature ranges, all topics that audiences might find interesting. As a result, the moments on the planet feel far less realistic than in other sci-fi pictures such as the "Alien" films.

Of course, that really shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering that the story delivers forced and all too obvious exposition (the moment where Graham reminds McConnell of why he replaced him is of the caliber normally associated with beginning writers) and has the characters reacting in some of the dumbest ways imaginable. Those include, but certainly aren't limited to, McConnell refusing to take a second to put on his oxygen helmet so that he can struggle and gasp (and presumably appear more determined and macho) in a crisis situation, as well as some astronauts passively watching a seemingly sentient, tornado-like object approaching them.

Then there's the ending where the "mystery" is resolved. While I won't go into the specifics so as not to ruin it for anyone still foolhardy enough to attend, it must be noted that it's one of the most implausible (even for a sci-fi flick) and laughably bad endings that I've seen in a long time. Had the film been played for camp all along it wouldn't have been such a big deal, but alas, that's not the case. As a result, this picture received more (unintentional) laughs than "Galaxy Quest" which was purposefully striving for sci-fi based laughs.

In retrospect, Disney World's former attraction of the same name wasn't that bad after all, especially when compared to its present day namesake. Of course, were that attraction still around, it would probably have park visitors - understandably believing it to be a tie-in to the current film -- running in horror across the park to get away from it. That's not a good thing for business, but then again, neither is this film. We give "Mission to Mars" a 2.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 6, 2000 / Posted March 10, 2000


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