MISSION TO MARS: a sedate, mournful, yet optimistic journey to the stars (2000 in Film #10)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 10th, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars

At the tail end of the 90’s, and before the rise of the dominant multi-picture franchise, every year was marked by films which covered similar blockbuster ground. 

1996 had aliens with Independence Day and soon after through a comedy lens in 1997’s Men in Black or Mars Attacks! That same year brought us the ‘volcano’ movies – Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both front-lined by rugged men of action. 1998 was the ‘asteroid’ year, marked by Michael Bay’s excess in Armageddon and the more philosophical (and far superior) Deep Impact. 2000’s variant on this trend was the Mars mission, with critical misfire Red Planet dropping at the tail end of the year, and before it Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, arguably the superior of two films which projected humanity forward deeper into the 21st century and toward the next frontier. We remained hopeful, back then, that humanity might reach for the stars. Twenty years on, the best we can hope for is that Donald Trump’s vaunted ‘Space Force’ ends up with eggs on its vacuumed face.

Mission to Mars, in a quirk of fate, actually takes place in the year 2020. The Mars mission, in an even stranger quirk, launches in the film on my birthday. With significant confidence, I am pretty sure that my 38th birthday this year will not be marked by another giant leap for mankind, which places Mission to Mars even more firmly into the science-fiction territory it already covers. Mars missions are promised or hoped for perhaps in the 2030’s, and now Red Planet’s 2056 looks far more likely (if we even have a habitable planet to launch from by then).

Mission to Mars, as a result, is hopeful and optimistic about our chances as a species, in a similar vein to its tonal bedfellow, 1997’s Contact, from Robert Zemeckis. They are films with different journeys but similar destinations. Both are riding the crest of Western hopes in the 1990’s that we may be about to embark, in the 21st century, on a great new adventure. That makes it all the more disappointing that Mission to Mars, the first significant high-concept blockbuster movie released in 2000–it’s only real challenger on opening weekend being Roman Polanski’s Johnny Depp-starring slow burn horror The Ninth Gate–is an underwhelming, strangely mournful and frequently corny experience.

Perhaps the most striking element of Mission to Mars, however, is that it could honestly have been directed by anyone. Yet it is directed by Brian de Palma, unquestionably one of the finest directors of the American New Wave and beyond.

The project did not originate from de Palma, which goes some way to explaining why this feels like an aberration when compared to much of his other work. It was the epitome of a factory-line product, devised on the Disney theme park ride of the same time, constructed by (nevertheless talented) screenwriters John & Jim Thomas and Graham Yost for an unnamed director who subsequently left the project. De Palma, as a helmsman for hire, presumably needed the money. Though a director never exactly pinned down by one style or genre, Mission to Mars still never truly feels like a de Palma picture to the degree even his previous film, the uneven Nicolas Cage starring Snake Eyes (from which he steals Gary Sinise for this film) and particularly his barnstorming reboot of Mission Impossible, both of which had dutch angles and twisty turny potboiling plots galore. Mission to Mars heads exactly in the direction you expect from the very beginning.

Granted, this is less de Palma’s fault as it is that of the script and story, which seem so determined to place a ‘Disneyfied’ sheen on a story which is otherwise quite somber and dark. Don Cheadle’s astronaut Luke gets stuck on the red planet and prefigures Matt Damon’s traveller in The Martian (a much superior film treading similar ground) by going native; the first manned mission to Mars is filled with death and destruction; Sinise’s Jim is still reeling from the tragic loss of his wife and has to fight to regain the trust of NASA and his colleagues; and Tim Robbins’ ostensible lead Woody suffers a horrific, albeit self-inflicted, death by space vacuum halfway through the picture. It’s not a laugh a minute romp. Yet it also tries to inject moments of levity, or romance, or awkward humour, which never tonally sit right with each other. I mentioned Contact previously – to its credit, Zemeckis committed to the serious, perhaps even earnest quest by Jodie Foster’s lead Ellie to find alien life, it never really tried to be funny.

Mission to Mars wants to be entertaining and family friendly while also being melancholic and philosophical.

You can see why this concoction might struggle to come together, especially when Robbins or Connie Nielsen (as his quite reckless younger wife) or Jerry O’Connell (remember him?) are gainly chewing up and spitting out lines that are almost out of Cheesy Cliche 101. “Some couples dance, others go to Mars”. Indeed Robbins’ character is so relentlessly upbeat and pragmatic, even in the face of certain and impending death, that he’s hard to believe could exist as an actual person. That’s where Mission to Mars fails, in the one area it believes it shines: character.

While possessing decent actors in those roles, the ensemble cast cannot make average material on the page come alive, which leaves de Palma to visually do the heavy lifting. There is one exception to this: Sinise. He feels like the one character the writers truly thought through and constructed the core narrative around, the only one who undertakes a journey, indeed he in microcosm represents the journey of the human race. He survives adversity, is haunted by pain, and eventually is given the opportunity to break free and ascend by the extra-terrestrials of Mars. “To stand on a new world and look beyond it to the next one.” is part of his justification for not returning to Earth, and Sinise sells it. His is the strongest performance that just about—just—makes the ending work.

And, let’s face it, Mission to Mars is a film defined by those last twenty minutes or so. Everything leading up to that, with extended BBQ cook outs which recall the all-American comradeship of Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, or sequences in space where the mission goes desperately wrong, which Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity will later pull off with far more intensity, it’s nevertheless finding the ‘Face on Mars’ and then the distinctly 2001: A Space Odyssey-styled conclusion that we’ve been waiting for. Red Planet’s eventual aliens are on the micro level, parasitic organisms which reflect the deeper scientific reality (even within the confines of escapism) of what we might find on Mars, but Mission to Mars is all about the Star Trek-style wonder, and plays with alien astronaut theory in a manner Prometheus and Ridley Scott would double down on a decade later.

In the ensuing two decades, as interest in alien life and ancient alien theory has died down compared to the science-fiction boom of the 90’s, the Face on Mars has largely been debunked, but it is a strong and recognisable visual cue to introduce the audience to these concepts and sell an ending designed to invoke spectacle, wonder and fascination, backed by Ennio Morricone’s lush score that has weaved across the entire film. Even this, however, ends up strangely sedate and mournful, lacking the breathtaking mystery of Stanley Kubrick’s defining film about the human experience. Let’s also not talk about the ropey alien CGI that you’ll have seen better pulled off in a dozen video games.

The ending owes less to 2001 than it does the aforementioned Contact, and really that sums up just how much of a debt Mission to Mars owes to the 1990’s in general. As the new century dawns, and particularly from our vantage point, it looks surprisingly old hat and painfully, hopelessly optimistic, even if the belief we can achieve such feats as reaching Mars and contacting ancient alien life will be tempered by loss and suffering feels more apt. Mission to Mars now feels as much on an artefact as the mysterious Cydonian face, and one that isn’t necessarily weathering well with age.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

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