"Mission to Mars"

How to make the Red Planet red? Use reflective copper sheeting. But that's only one of the secret wonders of Brian De Palma's maligned masterpiece.

Published September 29, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Mission to Mars"
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Tim Robbins
Touchstone; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of featurette, animation-to-scene comparison, audio commentary, visual-effects analysis, more

Last March, as Brian De Palma's "Mission to Mars" was being savaged by nearly every critic in the country, Armond White, the passionate film critic for the New York Press, threw down the gauntlet. "It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans ["Mission to Mars"] does not understand movies, let alone like them," White wrote.

That's the kind of overstatement that offers the most direct route to the truth. I can imagine someone liking movies and not liking "Mission to Mars," but essentially I agree with White. A critic who can't recognize the visual rhapsody of this movie (and I'm not talking about the special effects) is about as trustworthy as a blind dance critic. More than any filmmaker now working, De Palma communicates his meanings almost entirely in visual terms.

The story follows a rescue team sent to investigate an ominous, staticky transmission from Don Cheadle's Luke Graham, one of a group of astronauts who'd gone to Mars earlier to establish a base camp. The team's commanders, Woody and Terri (Tim Robbins, in one of his best performances, and whip-smart Swedish actress Connie Nielsen), are the first married couple on a manned mission. That has its own painful associations for Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise). He and his wife, Maggie (Kim Delaney of "NYPD Blue"), were supposed to fulfill that role before her death. (The team is rounded out by Jerry O'Connell's Bill, the resident young hotshot.) How they get to Mars, and what they find there, present the astronauts with their real struggle: maintaining their bonds of loyalty and humanity in the midst of this new world.

The movie's astronaut-heroes are all-American versions of the gadgeteer heroes of past De Palma films, using technology to solve the mysteries confronting them. Dr Pepper and M&M's are just some of the tools they employ to puzzle out the problems. In the opening shot, we watch a launched rocket that turns out to be a child's toy. Later, there's a stunning cut from Sinise's imagining that the footprint he makes in a child's sandbox is the first human footprint on Mars (his dreamed-of destiny, thwarted by his wife's death) to a remote-controlled toy truck transmitting pictures of the rocky red Mars surface.

As in most De Palma films, technology is never insulating; it never saves his characters from the pain and loss dredged up by the mysteries they use it to solve. When De Palma shows us Sinise watching home movies of his dead wife, or when an orbiting space station team watches a cheery time-delayed transmission from Cheadle and his crew at the very moment that, working on the surface of Mars, they are being decimated, we're seeing a vision of technology as the inadequate repository of memory. Concerned with the wonders and limits of technology, and how we can use it without sacrificing our humanity, De Palma is addressing one of the key concerns of filmmaking, especially in an era when special effects threaten to supplant humanity in our movies. This is the level of inquiry in a movie dismissed by most critics as cheap sci-fi, a strain of thought and feeling about both art and life that wouldn't be out of place in the movies of Chris Marker or Godard.

"Mission to Mars" is not what people expect from a mainstream science-fiction extravaganza. It's intimate and tender and hushed, done in long, quiet takes that not only allow the actors to establish a rapport but also allow us to feel as if we're floating in space with them (an effect enhanced by Ennio Morricone's lyrical and understated score, one of his best). De Palma, who returns to themes from picture to picture, developing and expanding them each time, finds new uses for most of his familiar touches. His beloved slow motion is here translated into the free-floating weightlessness of zero gravity, and the camera (in some scenes mounted on four separate axes) seems to be floating along with the characters. And in the movie's loveliest moment, a tragic and triumphant reversal of his longtime theme of tortured chivalry, De Palma uses weightlessness for one of his extended death knells.

Shot by De Palma's usual cinematographer, Stephen Burum, "Mission to Mars" features some of the most stunning special effects I've ever seen, and there's not a moment where they obliterate the characters or fail to serve the story. That's not surprising when you watch the making-of documentary (one of the terrific extras packed into the DVD) and hear the filmmakers explaining the effects in terms of their intended dramatic purpose. Like the film's heroes with their M&M's and packs of soda, the technicians came up with some wondrously prosaic solutions to their otherworldly problems. (To capture the red shadows of Mars, Burum used light reflectors made of copper sheeting.) In the documentary and commentary, the effects are explained in concrete layperson's terms (though if you don't want to know what happens in the movie, save the extras until after you've seen it). Perhaps the most unusual extra is the inclusion of the computer-animated scenes that served as storyboards for some of the most complex sequences.

As good as the DVD is, it doesn't offer the thrill of seeing the movie on the big screen: Watching it in the theater makes you feel as if you are floating in space along with the characters. But this is currently the only way to see a maligned masterpiece, one of the richest and most mature (and most optimistic) films from one of the greatest living American filmmakers. At one point a character explains the astronauts' exploratory impulse as life reaching out for life. In "Mission to Mars" that's a perfect example of the covenant between filmmaker and audience.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------