“Mission to Mars” 20 Years Later

Mission to Mars Jerry O'Connell, Tim Robbins, and Connie Nielsen in Mission to Mars. (Touchstone)

Brian De Palma’s bizarro, big-budget blastoff is rocky, but it remains an effectively fun entry in the director’s filmography.

Although primarily known for dark suspense thrillers, Brian De Palma’s filmography is studded with a number of seemingly offbeat projects that one might not normally associate with the director of Carrie and Dressed to Kill. Even among his most ardent fans, though, a project like his 2000 effort, Mission to Mars, continues to serve as a bit of a bafflement. If you had to select the least suitable project imaginable for one of Hollywood’s most iconoclastic and cynical filmmakers, you could hardly do better than propose he make an expensive, optimistic PG sci-fi epic for Disney that was loosely inspired by one of their theme park attractions. 

The results were perhaps not very surprising. Aside from France, where it screened as part of that year’s Cannes Film Festival and was ranked #4 on Cahiers du cinema’s list of the best films of the year, it was a financial and critical failure. It’s rarely discussed today even amongst De Palma scholars. (De Palma himself only briefly touches on it in the documentary De Palma.) And yet, to watch it again 20 years after its initial release is an interesting experience.

It clearly pales in comparison to such works as Blow Out, Phantom of the Paradise, and Femme Fatale and it’s still wildly uneven in many ways. At the same time, to watch De Palma attempt to embrace new things in both genre and mindset is fascinating. It even contains one of the most absolutely spellbinding set pieces in a career that is not exactly wanting in that regard and as such, the end result makes sense in the grand scheme of his career.

In the distant year of 2020, the Mars I mission launches to land the first men on the planet. After Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) and his crew land, they go to inspect an unusual formation, but when they do, a massive vortex unleashes and kills everybody but Luke. After analysis of a garbled distress message received at the orbiting World Space Station suggests that Luke might still be alive, the forthcoming Mars II mission is quickly reconfigured into a rescue operation. In the crew are Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins); his wife, Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen); technician Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell); and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), a recent widower who was supposed to be on the first mission with his wife (Kim Delaney) until she became ill.

Disaster strikes as the crew approach Mars’s orbit and while most of the crew makes it to the surface, their ship is destroyed. They begin repairing the first craft and discover that Luke is still alive. It’s then that he explains the puzzle of the formation that he and the first crew discovered, and when they figure out the way of entering it, they find an array of secrets regarding the history of both Mars and the whole of humankind, as well as an invitation to learn more. 

Although De Palma has flirted with science-fiction in the past—The Fury contained some trace elements of it and he long spoke of mounting an adaptation of Alfred Bester’s novel The Demolished ManMission to Mars marks his first true exploration of the genre. However, this was not a project that he originated. He came into the project late in the game after original director Gore Verbinski left and after it had been written (and rewritten, to judge by the three credited screenwriters who are credited as producers) and cast.

It seems as if most of the key problems with the film were already baked in long before he stepped in. The screenplay essentially wants to combine the wide-eyed pulp fiction where adventurers travel the universe to discover new worlds with more ambitious and thought-provoking works like the seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of it is for fun; some of it asks audiences to contemplate their place in the universe. That is an interesting approach, but it doesn’t quite take off in this case. The characters are not particularly well-developed, the dialogue is often clunky, and too much of it has the overwritten feel of an author who is being paid by the word, trying to stretch things out to make a few extra bucks.

In the final scenes, the film explicitly references 2001, but those moments feel as if they were written by people who preferred 2010 to its predecessor. The ending wants us to contemplate the secrets of the universe but in a manner that is clunky instead of awe-inspiring. To be fair, the result is perhaps the strangest finale to any sci-fi film put out by Disney since The Black Hole, but it will truly satisfy only a few.

And yet, as clumsy as it can get at times, Mission to Mars does make for an intriguing addition to the De Palma canon. The film is not without its bleak and grisly moments—one scene features an exploding body that evokes the infamous finale of The Fury, albeit in a resoundingly PG-rated manner. That said, the storyline is ultimately hopeful and while it does lead to some odd moments (including what must be the least cynical deployment of the American flag in De Palma’s oeuvre), it’s surprisingly successful in evoking that kind of spirit without coming across as too forced.

[T]he film is a visual marvel as De Palma, along longtime collaborations such as cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and editor Paul Hirsch, creates any number of stunning images in which the constantly roving camera meshes with the feeling of weightlessness.

Better yet, the film is a visual marvel as De Palma, along with longtime collaborators such as cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and editor Paul Hirsch, creates any number of stunning images in which the constantly roving camera meshes with the feeling of weightlessness.

The highpoint of the film—indeed, the sequence that even its detractors admit is effective—is the stunning mid-film section in which a micrometeorite shower kicks off a series of ever-expanding disasters that culminates in the demise of one of the nominal stars at just barely past the halfway point. This sequence, which runs about 20 minutes or so, is De Palma at his best. It’s suspenseful, exciting, darkly funny, and constructed with jigsaw precision, and when it comes to its conclusion, it leaves viewers feeling a combination of shock and utter exhilaration at what they have just witnessed.

Seen today, Mission to Mars is just as much of an oddity as it was when it first came out and while it will almost certainly never be regarded as one of the great De Palma films by any stretch of the imagination, it does not deserve its reputation as a wholesale disaster that it gained virtually from the day it came out. (The film remains De Palma’s last Hollywood studio production as he would relocate to Europe after it came out to make films like Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia, and Passion.)

At its lowest points, it is no worse than any number of anonymous space operas that have been produced over the years (including Red Planet, the competing Mars-themed thriller that it beat into theaters by a few months). At its highest peaks—specifically that still jaw-dropping mid-section—it serves a potent reminder of De Palma’s skills as a filmmaker. This is a film that is undeniably flawed but also undeniably ambitious and in a time when most films of this sort tend to forget to include the ambition alongside the elaborate visual effects, that does count for something in the end.

Mission to Mars Trailer:

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