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MISSION TO MARS

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The only possible way of starting this review – and believe me, I wish with all my heart I wasn’t using the phrase so literally – is by saying "Stanley Kubrick must be turning in his grave." With Mission To Mars, Brian De Palma, apparently having finally conceded that Hitchcock’s bones have been stripped bare, has chosen to sink his beak and claws into Kubrick’s somewhat fresher corpse instead (hey, Brian, how about picking on someone who’s still alive?). 2001 is the main "inspiration" for this movie, but it is by no means the only one. Various reviewers have complained that this film steals from Contact, Apollo 13, and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture as well, none of which I’ve seen; so I’ll content myself with saying that if you can picture a cack-handed melding of 2001 and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, stripped of all pretensions towards either profundity or entertainment, you’ll have a pretty clear mental picture of Mission To Mars. The film opens in the year 2020, which seems a tad optimistic to me – the nicely symmetrical date was probably to chosen to balance the film’s catchy little "M2M" logo. We are introduced to our characters at a barbecue held the day before the first ever "mission to Mars" (getting ready to go to Mars seems to involve as much intense preparation as a trip to the corner store), in a scene that contains more ridiculous expository dialogue than anything since the Ronald Reagan vehicle Hong Kong (the Medved crowd will know what I mean!). For instance, there’s Jim McConnell, played by Gary Sinese. He was meant to head up the first Mars expedition, but his wife (and co-astronaut) Maggie became terminally ill, and he pulled out of rotation to care for her, and since her death has been considered psychologically unfit for the mission. How do we know this? Because Jim’s colleagues, Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), spend the afternoon saying things like, "It should have been you and Maggie leading this mission, Jim. It’s because Maggie became terminally ill, and you pulled yourself out of rotation to care for her, and you are now considered psychologically unfit, that I’m going instead of you." (Don’t you wish that, just once, the recipient of this kind of dialogue would respond, "Yeah, I know – I was there, remember?") Anyway, after scanty preparation, someone or other announces, "Let’s go to Mars!" And they do. We don’t get to see it, though. Astonishingly, it would seem that Brian De Palma thinks that there’s nothing more boring than human beings landing on Mars: it happens twice in the course of the film, and the audience doesn’t see it either time! Instead, we jump forward about a year (the movie’s timeline is really shonky, so I use the term "about" advisedly), to when the first crew stumbles across a mysterious kind of mountain. They bombard it with all sorts of rays, trying to find out what it is, but apparently the mountain doesn’t like it, because a huge twisting sandstorm blows up and obliterates three out of the four-person crew. The survivor, Luke Graham, manages to send a garbled SOS before contact is lost. Woody Blake immediately demands that they mount a rescue mission, and that the "psychologically unfit" McConnell be allowed to co-pilot. The mission head argues a bit, then basically shrugs and says, "Yeah, all right." And so off they go. Now, it was about this time, when I had the chance to consider both crews and their fates, that I began to have serious philosophical problems with this movie (as opposed to the artistic ones I’d had since the outset). Think about it: this is supposed to be a multinational mission, and the first crew consists of a black American man (in command), a Russian man, a French woman, and someone else (a white American man, I think – they weren’t very explicit). This team travels to Mars, lands, and successfully establishes a camp and an experimental greenhouse – and we don’t see any of it. The first time we see them in action, everything goes horribly wrong. So then the rescue team gets sent after them. Who does this consist of? Another multinational crew? Nope: four nice, clean-cut, WASPy Americans. These guys we get to see being heroic. And that isn’t the end of my character-based problems with Mission To Mars. For one thing, the rescue crew in this "futuristic" movie could have stepped whole and breathing from any science fiction film, or indeed any war movie, of the fifties or sixties. Listening to the excruciating banality of the dialogue during the space flight (there’s a reason Kubrick opted for silence), I was unable to stop thinking of all those movies where other clean-cut young Americans passed the time on their way into combat by showing photos of their girl (dead men!), talking about what they were going to do when they got back to Brooklyn, or worrying about the Dodgers. In Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell), we even have the "wisecracking" youngster who has to be kept in line by his level-headed elders: an invariably painful characterisation firmly established by Dick Wesson in Destination Moon (and mercilessly parodied by Joey Travolta in Amazon Women On The Moon). In one of the film’s stupider scenes (and believe me, there are plenty to choose from), Phil takes advantage of the zero gravity to build a model of his "ideal woman’s" DNA out of M&Ms. Now, was I the only one thinking of Homer Simpson and his smuggled potato chips at this point? (Mmm – potato chips!) Of course, Homer got yelled at: Phil’s M&Ms are just a big joke. (Oh, and in case you cynics were wondering, the presence of the M&Ms isn’t just a gratuitous piece of product placement: they are part of A Very Serious Plot Point. Really. [The Dr Pepper, on the other hand – yeesh! It’s Godzilla 1985 all over again!]). The crew of the rescue mission does differ slightly from its cinematic forebears inasmuch as "the woman" is not there on sufferance, but is a fully qualified team member. However, I have a problem with that, too (bear with me: I’ll be done in a minute). Mission To Mars opens with one of the barbecue guests voicing an objection to husband and wife astronaut crews. Now, this is clearly supposed to be the voice of jealousy speaking, but I for one agree entirely! Who on earth (pardon the expression) would put a married couple in such an intense and dangerous situation? It shouldn’t be done, any more than family members should be in the same combat outfit, or on the same ship, or whatever. It simply adds an intolerable extra stress. But of course, since they’ve planted this couple on board, we know something’s going to go wrong for one of them. Calamity strikes just as the ship is about to enter the atmosphere of Mars. The crew has to abandon ship, and as they are trying to re-capture the rescue pod thingy, Woody Blake overshoots the mark and becomes literally Lost In Space. Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), who is Mrs Blake, not surprisingly freaks out. She ignores both her husband (and C.O.’s) direct orders to stop trying to retrieve him, and Jim McConnell’s pleading, and it is only by committing suicide that Woody stops her killing herself and the other crewmembers through her futile actions. (Woody’s heroic death is supposed to be a moment of high tragedy, but it doesn’t quite play that way. I hear that American audiences laughed at it. I confess to rolling my eyes. As to the one other person in the cinema with me, he was too far away for any sniggering to be audible.) Now, I don’t know if this subplot is there to prove that women crack under pressure, or that they can’t follow orders, or just that married astronaut teams are a bad idea after all, but in any case it sucks. Anyway, the three survivors make it into their pod and succeed in landing on Mars. Back on the space station, the mission head (an unbilled Armin Mueller-Stahl, who presumably forwent payment in exchange for having his name taken off the credits), announces in awe that "Only Jim McConnell could have managed that landing!" We’ll have to take his word for it, as once again we don’t see it. (What the hell was going on here? If this were a low-budget film and they couldn’t afford to show us, fine, but---) The crew finds the remains of Mars 1, and we have to sit through the raising of the good ol’ Stars And Stripes (funny how we didn’t see the multinational crew doing any flag raising!). While Jim McConnell is exploring the still-thriving greenhouse, he is attacked by the borderline psychotic Luke Graham, who comes to his senses when McConnell manages to convince him "It’s me! It’s me!" (Michael Caine, eat your heart out!) A shave and a haircut later, Graham is explaining that whole killer mountain bit to his colleagues. Now, up to this point, Mission To Mars has been little more than eye-candy: not good for you, but not harmful in small doses. The final quarter of the film, however, plumbs depths of idiocy that take away the breath of even the experienced Bad Film Watcher. You see, the "mountain" isn’t really a mountain: as we saw in an early glimpse, it’s actually a huge, carved face. (I’m sure this thing was supposed to make us think mystical thoughts about ancient civilisations, and Easter Island, and stuff like that, but by this stage of the film I was so irritated that all I could think of was The Big Giant Head.) Before the sandstorm killed his teammates, they managed to record some strange sounds that were coming from it. In the six months – or year – or two years – whatever - that Graham has been alone on Mars, he’s found that the sounds are actually a code of some kind, and has analysed them with his astonishingly still-functional computer. He proceeds to demonstrate his findings to the others in one of those infuriating movies scenes were hitting two keys on the keyboard results in about sixteen spectacular computer images. Now, I’m not altogether clear about the next bit (and I’m sure the screenwriters weren’t either), but apparently, the "strange sounds" were broken down by the computer into their component parts; these were further converted into a two-dimensional image; and finally, when this was translated into a third dimension---voila! DNA! Human DNA, in fact, with a bit missing. The astronauts debate the meaning of this for some time, but it is not until Jim McConnell has a close encounter with some more of Phil’s M&Ms (told ya!) that he sees the light. The team decides the whole thing is a test: that they have to fill in the missing bits of their DNA; convert that bit to a two-dimensional image; then to turn that into sounds, and broadcast the message to the The Big G---ah, the mountain. Simple, right? Well, Phil gets left at the ship with orders to "take off if we’re not back in time" (yeah, right!) and the others set off. They play their message, pass the test, and a gap in the mountain admits them. Of course, once they’re in, the doors shut, trapping them. Then, oh gentle reader, then--- You know, if forty-eight hours ago someone had told me there was a movie with a stupider "big revelation" scene that 1999’s The Haunting, I’d have laughed at them. Well, it’s forty-eight hours later now, I’ve seen Mission To Mars and, believe me, I’m not laughing! It isn’t just that this scene is so stupid, but that it goes on and on and on, and gets more and more embarrassing, until the viewer (well, this viewer, anyway) is reduced to squirming in their seat and whimpering, "Please, God, make it stop." Okay--- The crew find themselves inside a huge, virtual reality planetarium, to which these experienced astronauts react by behaving like over-excited third-graders. Then (dramatic moment!) a shadow falls across the room, and the crew turns to see---a Martian!!!! And oh, Lordy, Lordy, Lordy, what a Martian! How to describe it? For once, words truly fail me. I can only fall back upon a local review (one of Urban Cinefile’s, I believe) that called it "a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Lisa Marie in Mars Attacks!" (I wish it had been Lisa Marie: she might have massacred the entire crew and given us a genuinely happy ending.) The only thing I would like to add is that this pitiful creature is sincerely one of the two or three lamest things I have ever seen on a movie screen. But of course, our astronauts are totally overwhelmed. Their Martian friend then leads them through a potted history of their respective planets, using the planetarium. (This sequence is bad enough on its own, but we also have to sit through a helpful "voiceover" explaining what we’re seeing, as if we’re all idiots. Or perhaps on the assumption that anyone still in the cinema at this point would have to be an idiot.) You see, once upon a time, Mars was inhabited. But a catastrophe struck, and the inhabitants of the planet left it to find new places to colonise. One of the planets they visited was Earth, way back when. We didn’t get the whole shebang, though, they just kind of, ah, "seeded us". It was alien DNA that started life on Earth. As we watch some deeply uninspiring computer graphics, the astronauts ooh and ahh as if they’ve never seen anything so incredible (just, you know, the whole of space between Earth and Mars). After we watch the evolution of life on Earth (complete with the rather charming suggestion that the brontosaurus [sorry, apatosaurus – showing my age!] evolved directly into the wooly mammoth), our awestruck astronauts realise that they and the Martians are really all the same people – a theory I concur with completely. Think about it: this ancestral race, that wanted to make contact with its descendants, nevertheless set up a "security system" that was so freaking complicated that there was no way anyone could decipher it unless: (i) they figured out it was a security system; (ii) they happened to have the right kind of software to analyse it; (iii) having analysed it, they correctly intuited how they were supposed to respond; and (iv) they had an endless supply of M&Ms with them. Anyone not meeting these rather bizarre criteria was instantly exterminated. Tough crowd, huh? Not only tough, but stupid, illogical and homicidally dangerous, too. Yup – sounds like the human race to me! Now, up to this point in the film, Gary Sinese (despite wearing more eye make-up than Connie Nielsen, which is kind of disturbing) has fought a valiant but futile battle to keep the entire film on track. Now, however, his character, and indeed the film itself, suddenly becomes stricken with a terminal case of the Galloping Spielbergias. You see, Jim’s wife, Maggie, always said that there was life out there somewhere; that that’s what we were born for: "to stand on a new world, and look towards the next". In case we weren’t paying attention when a recording of Maggie spouting this drivel was played earlier on, Jim now regurgitates it word for word, then announces he’s staying with the Martians. (I confess, I survived this section of the film by mentally conjuring up Parallel Universe Storylines – such as the one where they find Mars completely dead and barren, and someone – probably Phil The Funny One – turns to Jim and announces, "I guess Maggie was wrong, huh?") Luke and Terri are mildly put out, but only mildly. Time is running out (just enough to give us they old "will they make it to the ship in time?" scene), so after much hugging and tearfulness they go on their way, leaving Jim to be encased in what I can only assume to be a vat of liquid saccharine. Luke and Terri make it to the ship just in the nick of time (phew! what a relief!) and they take off. As they head for Earth, they see a tiny spaceship heading in the opposite direction. "Have a good journey, Jim," says Luke solemnly, and the credits roll. Well, Luke, you can wish me a good journey, too, because this stupid movie is finally over and I am going home to watch Quatermass And The Pit. Ahhh…. Some nasty aliens committing mass slaughter – that’s what I feel like….
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