Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mission to Mars (De Palma, 2000)

There are films which use space travel for the purposes of great adventure. Epic battles are fought between the stars resulting in high speed chases and spectacular explosions. Bizarre aliens populate the skies taking whatever forms our latex make-up or computer graphics can manage. This, of course, is the universe as imagined by George Lucas – a place where extraordinary technology is used to settle conflicts that are essentially very basic. Good guys battle bad guys. Attractive guys pair up with attractive women. And good guys can become bad guys if they do not heed the pseudo-Buddhist teaching of their mentors.

And then there are films that use space travel to speculate about the nature of who we are. They recognize that more than anything else space points up human fragility while simultaneously affirming that the fact we are here at all is nothing short of a miracle. We intuit that if we are to seriously learn more about how we came to be, then we must take small, tentative steps out into the universe. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars falls into the latter category of films. And while it would be a stretch to say that De Palma’s creation deserves comparison to Kubrick’s 2001, it at least can be safely considered alongside something like Zemeckis’ Contact. Like that film, Mission to Mars uses our best scientific knowledge to speculate how its characters might conceivably be hurled into the far reaches of space and then makes fanciful guesses about the extraordinary things that might await the travelers once they reach their intended destination.

Although Mission to Mars eventually builds in momentum towards an exciting and enlightening conclusion, it struggles mightily while its characters are still on Earth. Early expository dialogue ranges from stilted to utterly manipulative. De Palma’s camera meanders around smoothly at a go-away party and we fear that this will be another film in which De Palma is more concerned with cinematic acrobatics rather than conveying anything of substance. Happily though, the film wastes little time getting its characters into zero gravity. A team led by Don Cheadle’s Luke is the first to set foot on the red planet. However, when a violent unexpected storm wreaks havoc on the exploration party, another group including a husband and wife team (Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen) and a recent widower (Gary Sinise) is pieced together to serve as a rescue squad.

Because of the six months of travel involved merely to complete one leg of the journey, it is believed that a married couple will be beneficial to the team, presumably due to the stability and warmth they will provide. In the first of the film’s magical scenes, we see the duo engaging in a bit of gravity-free ballroom dancing and see how the presence of love could help boost morale on a long, tedious journey. However, we also see later how such ties might pose a problem when one partner is faced with a decision that could risk the ultimate success of the mission. Although he was not initially a member of the Mars expedition due to questions about his mental health in the wake of his wife’s death, it is Gary Sinise’s Jim that pushes the group towards its most extraordinary discovery declaring that he “didn’t come 100 million miles just to turn back in the last 10 feet.”

What transpires on the red planet, I will not reveal. However, I will suggest that De Palma’s film probably had difficulty finding an audience due to the fact that it merges a first half focused on grounded scientific knowledge and a second half that indulges in wild, dreamy speculation. The ideal viewer will have to be a particular mixture of realist and dreamer, willing to forgive the film’s various false notes and occasional melodramatic manipulations. Those willing to go along on the journey will find a film of building tension and power – a film that is almost even more endearing because of its awkwardness. It is a film that affirms how far we are from true understanding about our origins and purpose, but which also celebrates that tiny bit of knowledge that we have been able to attain through the efforts of the curious and the courageous.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Mean Girls (Waters, 2004)

One of the clever twists on the typical teen comedy to be found in Tina Fey’s debut screenplay for Mean Girls is that the central character, Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan), arrives at an American high school after being homeschooled in Africa for her entire life. She is completely disconnected from the pop culture that drives the fashion choices of her friends and unaware of the social hierarchy that has been firmly established. The rest of the students have a collective history together with memories of past relationships, embarrassments and treacheries. Cady walks in essentially a blank slate, ready to be coerced into joining one of the various factions.

Among her suitors are a team of Math-letes, who are seeking out a token girl that will allow them to receive more funding, and a trio of attractive but vacant rich girls dubbed the Plastics who represent the pinnacle of popularity. Cady is befriended by an intense, dark-haired young woman of questionable sexuality and her unquestionably gay male buddy. These two warn Cady that despite her mathematical prowess, she would be foolish to risk the “social suicide” in becoming a Math-lete. Instead, they encourage her to use the Plastics’ interest in her as a means to destroy them.

It is here where many viewers will draw comparison to the 1980’s cult hit, Heathers, in which similar high school tensions lead to murder played for dark comedy. Indeed, Mean Girls seems to be written as a direct response to that film. Without ever spoiling the light-hearted fun, Mean Girls functions as a post-Columbine corrective for Heathers. It is a tale of teen cattiness and deceit that demonstrates the lengths high schoolers will go to emotionally torment each other. Yet unlike Heathers, it ultimately veers towards positivity and a reinforcement of the benefits of integrity and goodwill towards others.

Especially notable about Mean Girls’ trajectory is the way in which Cady arrives at the self-realization moment that we know will ultimately come by film’s end. In setting out to break apart the Plastics and their dominance of the school, Cady’s seeming successes only lead to a degradation of her self. Although we may take a little vindictive pleasure in watching Cady’s targets crumble, we cannot help but note that neither the school nor Cady is any healthier or happier. Only when Cady has managed to alienate virtually every member of the school - partly through her own doing and partly because of a scheme on the part of her enemy - does she discover the part of herself that will allow her to get back on track, fulfill her own spirit and become a positive influence on those around her.

Written with plenty of wit and wisdom, Mean Girls is a refreshing film to counter the onslaught of backstabbing and conniving that we are subjected to daily in this culture obsessed with so-called reality television. It convincingly exposes the destructive nature of clique mentality and models healthy relationships for teens who may feel that they are trapped in survival mode. Mean Girls strikes a satisfying balance between edgy and earnest and is therefore a cut above the average teen comedy.