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.



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