"Disney, we have a problem"

Film critics hoot at Brian De Palma's $100 million space epic.

Published March 10, 2000 6:36PM (EST)

"In space, no one can hear you snore." That was the conclusion of the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell, leading off an across-the-boards critical fanny-whacking for Brian De Palma's $100 million "Mission to Mars."

The film, released through Disney's Touchstone Pictures, follows Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle through a space trip to the Red Planet, a disaster, and then a rescue mission that finds evidence of the origins of life on earth. The critics were unanimous in hooting at the film's ketchup-bottle pace, mind-numbing script and wooden performances. They also dismissed its New Age sentimentality and undifferentiated thematic amalgamation of, among other things, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Abyss," "Contact" and "The Mummy."

Mitchell's review is among the nicest, actually. "After a couple of hours spinning around listening to this drivel," writes the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan, "I felt like I was going to barf."

Big-budget Hollywood actioners have been kicked around the solar system by critics before, of course -- take "Armageddon." But "Armageddon" made hundreds of millions of dollars for Disney. "Mission to Mars" lacks big stars (Robbins, Sinise and Cheadle, respected though they are, don't exactly make the multiplexes go cha-ching), and thus far audience reactions have been mixed as well.

Actually, mixed is too nice a word. Recent showings on both coasts were greeted with catcalls and boos. At a screening at NYU's film school, students laughed when one of the main characters went to his death.

Mitchell's Times review is written with an amused contempt. He dismisses the film as a "new age paperweight" and concludes, "It's been a long time since such a grandiloquent souffli of majesty and silliness refused to rise on the big screen."

"There doesn't seem to be an original moment in the entire movie, and the score is so repetitive that it could have been downloaded directly from EnnioMorricone.com."

Variety is scathing. "If they ever decide to revive 'Mystery Science Theater 3000,'" writes Todd McCarthy, "'Mission to Mars' would be the perfect movie with which to launch the return."

It's an "elaborate, highfalutin space opera" that is "dull and eventually ludicrous while trying to be moving and profound," he writes. "Grim reviews and word of mouth will put the word out quickly, resulting in precipitous falloff from whatever opening weekend biz it manages to do."

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir concurred: "It's the sort of spectacularly misguided A-list movie that invites superlatives. Is it worse than 'Ishtar'? Worse than 'Waterworld'? Worse than 'The Sicilian'? Wherever it ranks in the pantheon of badness, 'Mission to Mars' is startlingly inept from start to finish -- it's atrociously written, poorly shot and edited and fatally unfocused."

Having contained his nausea, the Washington Post's O'Sullivan gets personal: "Earth to Brian De Palma: What the heck were you thinking?" He scores the slow rhythm and lack of tension. "How are we supposed to care whether the ship is leaking oxygen and fuel and must be abandoned in deep space when Sinise and company treat it like a flat tire on a country road?"

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times begins his review with an extended, devastating string of the movie's lamest lines: "Nobody ever wanted Mars the way you two did"; "The control module doesn't have enough thrust"; "Luke needs us now." He spends the rest of the review ridiculing the script and praising the film's press packet, which he calls "much more intriguing than what's on the screen."

The sole non-hostile major review comes from the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, who says the movie has "extraordinary things in it." Yet even he spends most of his review bemoaning the film's ludicrousness: "It begins with an astronaut's backyard picnic that's so chirpy, it could easily accommodate Chevy Chase. It contains conversations that drag on beyond all reason. It is quiet when quiet is not called for. It contains actions that deny common sense. And for long stretches the characters speak nothing but boilerplate."

Film-fan sites on the Web were no friendlier. Wrote a correspondent on Ain't It Cool News: "When my friends and I saw the 'point of no return' warning on the girl-astronaut's suit-screen during the space-walk, we were like, Who manufactured the suit? ACME by way of Warner Bros.? It was a Wile E. Coyote moment, to be sure."

By the Salon arts staff

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