Cheesy sci-fi has many charms. And, at first, hasty glance, Brian De Palma seems determined to celebrate every one of them in his space opera Mission to Mars. Not for him the cathedral-cool, dead-white atmospherics of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick called his classic "the first six-million-dollar religious film". De Palma, by contrast, appears all too aware that these days church attendance is down.
The story of three buddies, Jim (Gary Sinise), Woody (Tim Robbins) and Luke (Don Cheadle) - all of whom want a date with "beautiful" Mars - Mission's best running gag involves a Flash Gordon necklace. It also contains dialogue as clunky as a Blake's Seven stage-set. Luke is the lucky boy picked to go first but, as he says to Jim in one of the opening scenes: "It should have been your mission, yours and Maggie's, and it would have been, if Maggie hadn't got sick..." As for God, he's just useful for panicked cussing. When Luke's crew encounter resistance on Mars the air resounds with His name: "Oh God, no", "Oh Jesus", etc.
Truth is, though, that despite first appearances De Palma and his team do have religion on the brain. And their approach is far from breezy. Mission to Mars is all about the desire to connect with an ideal, superior stranger. And once Jim and Woody, along with a young know-it-all, Phil (Jerry O'Connell) and Woody's girlfriend, Terri (Connie Nielsen), have been dispatched to rescue Luke, it even makes sense as drama - as "grown-up" and spaced-out as a body could wish for.
De Palma's secret weapon is Sinise, an actor who manages to combine Jack Nicholson's homicidal mania with John Cazale's sick-bay sweetness. Thanks to him, Jim (still grieving over the death of wife, Maggie) is more than your two-bit tortured hero. At one point, the camera fixes on him as he watches Woody and Terri dancing, gravity-free, in the ship. As they whirl and nuzzle, Jim's face itches with envy. and something akin to contempt. It's impossible to begrudge this couple their snatched moment of grace but - without sprouting horns - that's exactly what Jim does.
Later, having landed on Mars, he makes himself known to Luke with the words: "You have a son called Bobby. You're reading Treasure Island with him!" This should be utterly implausible - how would Jim know a detail like that? In fact, it makes perfect, vaguely sinister sense. The book, like the dancing, represents the intimacies of family life from which Jim is estranged. He's a peeping Tom - and you can quite imagine him snuggling up close to Luke's wife and son to get a better look.
Does such a man deserve to find God? Clearly a little nutty, clearly convinced that discovering life on Mars will reconnect him to Maggie, Jim is neurosis on buffed-up legs. But, hey, he's got nothing on Luke. Underlining the Treasure Island theme, Mars castaway Luke is full of Ben Gunn shivers and frowns (to great effect; as Cheadle showed in Devil in a Blue Dress, he can be jumpier than a switch blade).
All nappy hair and newly withered hands, Luke shares his discoveries free of scientific gravitas or Boy's Own derring-do. And Jim quite understands. De Palma is famous for his action-packed machismo, for his carnivorous cocks-of-the-walk. But Jim and Luke make for the most discombobulated of pioneers. If anything, they've got more in common with De Palma women. Like Sissy Spacek in Carrie, or Penelope Ann Miller in Carlito's Way, they seem to have been stripped of an outer layer of skin.
Mission to Mars, then, represents something like progress for De Palma, but that said, plenty of conservative traces remain. The film's African-bias is constantly diluted by gestures towards blue-eyed Americana. Luke gets his hair cut as soon as the gang arrive. "How do you feel?" asks Jim, gesturing towards Luke's clean-cut head, to which Luke replies, "lighter". Quite so: for lighter read whiter.
The irony is that there's so little of that other De Palma trademark, his bravura style. In a moment reminiscent of the palm-sweating pool-hall scene in Carlito's Way, Jim arrives on Mars, only to spot, via a reflection, that someone's behind him. Within seconds, however, ham-fisted editing has managed to fritter the tension away.
The music, too, normally so crucial in De Palma's movies, actually detracts from the action, so respectably soporific it sets images of a smartly dressed orchestra dancing in your head. As for the special effects, they're all over the shop. The "thing" that attacks the first mission is straight out of the Twister handbook - more unruly Hoover than menacing phenomena. Mars itself, meanwhile, resembles a slice of Mother's Pride bread drowning in a bowl of Heinz tomato soup.
It makes you wonder about the few visuals which do work. The lighting for the space scenes is beautifully flat and hyper-real - Tim Robbins floats in a black sea, in a black hood, as yellow and androgynously puckered as a 17-century Flemish matron - but perhaps this was just a happy accident?
In the States, the flawed but oddly fascinating Mission to Mars went straight in at number one, then swiftly tumbled. I can't imagine it'll do much better here. The critics around me were guffawing fit to burst at all the tender moments (most disconcerting, given that I was dabbing my eyes). Brainy sci-fi fans won't find it meaty enough, conventional believers - wedded to the Creation myth - will see it as sacrilegious. And they'll all have a point. But one criticism of the film - that its ending leaves nothing to the viewer's imagination - seems unfair.
Early on, in a recorded transmission, Luke wishes Jim a happy birthday. Anticipating his friend's reaction, he hollers "and I bet right now he's got a fake smile on his face". Cut to Jim, who is indeed grimacing like a madman. The surprise is we never get to see his "real" smile. Even when he's on his own, even when he's watching footage of Maggie, even when his dreams appear to come true, that implausible crescent remains plastered to Jim's face. As viewers we're used to reaching a climax. But for reasons best known to himself, De Palma never allows us proof that Jim has reached heaven on earth (or Mars). We have to have faith. Wherever Kubrick is, I'm sure he'd approve.
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