STARRING: Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell

2000, 113 Minutes, Directed by: Brian De Palma

Description: Movie focuses on a Mars-bound rescue mission commanded by Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), whose team (Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell) has been sent to retrieve the sole survivor (Don Cheadle) of a tragic Mars landing.

A while back I read a trilogy of novels by Kim Stanley Robinson about the first manned landing on Mars and that planet's subsequent colonisation. I found the series (consisting of Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars, each one clocking in at more than 600 pages) to be fascinating even though they didn't feature any aliens or disclosed the origin of life on Earth.

Mission to Mars clocks in at just under two hours, features aliens and reveals the origin of life on Earth. I found myself bored stiff within no time . . .

The first hour of Mission to Mars went by okay: for a change Hollywood seems to be paying attention to those pesky scientific details that they always get wrong in most sci-fi. As the title suggests, well, this movie is about the first manned landing on Mars (duh!).

One particularly fascinating sequence involving meteorites the size of pebbles that breach a spaceship's hull clearly illustrates the perils of space travel. Star Trek has done us a disservice by having its protagonists zip around the galaxy as one would let's say get in one's car and quickly drive to the nearest shopping mall. It is not that simple: space travel is a hazardous affair. For once there is no gravity in space. Radio broadcasts from Mars to Earth takes 20 minutes (which the film is at pains to point out in one of those redundant subtitles!). How many people know this? Not many I suspect - who really paid attention in their science classes?

"2001: A Space Odyssey for dummies . . ."

At about the halfway mark Mission to Mars starts to lose its bearings. For a movie that goes to such lengths to be scientifically correct, all kinds of X-Files/supermarket tabloid rubbish is spouted. It seems that the "face" on Mars is really an alien artifact. Mars was once colonized - and so forth. This all rather sad really, especially since we have already seen the ending of benign aliens deployed in other better films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Abyss.

And, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. An irate visitor to this page dubbed Mission to Mars "2001 for dummies" in our discussion boardroom. He is right of course. Mission to Mars is not merely content following the same basic plot of aliens having created life on Earth, but it also steals a lot from that film's imagery. The spaceships and spacesuits all resemble those in 2001. While this may be an attempt at scientific accuracy, it just shows how much the Kubrick masterpiece got right more than 30 years ago!

The truth is however that Mission to Mars director Brian De Palma, while having a clear visual flair, has never been a very original director. Some of his films (such as Dressed to Kill, Carrie, Body Double and so forth) are Hitchcock rip-offs.

It seems that De Palma has now set his sights on Kubrick: whatever Kubrick can do, he can do just as well. And he does! The special effects are almost flawless. A particularly nausea inducing sequence plays around with our perceptions whilst the camera floats around like one the weightless astronauts it is filming. The truth remains however that it still isn't very original.

Even if you haven't seen 2001 or 2010 (it's oft-maligned sequel) the chances are that you'd still be bored by Mission to Mars. It is slow moving and one remains curiously detached from on-screen events - either it is the fault of Ennio (The Mission) Morricone's beautiful yet lifeless music score or that of the actors.

Despite featuring some excellent actors such as Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins, no one gives any performance that is more than merely competent. Maybe it's the dull dialogue, which even has a character say "piece of cake", a phrase now made infamous by the terrible Battlefield Earth.

Mission to Mars shows what is wrong with Hollywood sci-fi nowadays: it is more intent on recycling old ideas than trying out some new ones. There are hundreds, if not thousands of excellent science fiction novels out there, many of which would make excellent movies. Yet, Hollywood seems intent on remaking 2001 with the ending from Close Encounters! Now how about those Kim Stanley Robinson novels, eh . . .?



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