Mission to Mars
Produced by Walt Disney Productions
Directed by Brian De Palma
Screenplay by Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas, and Graham Yost
Released by Buena Vista Pictures

Instead of insulting our intelligence, as so much third-rate science fiction does, director Brian De Palma’s second rate Mission to Mars is just good enough to do something much worse: It insults our hope in a purposeful universe. It does so by invoking the now standard-issue movie metaphysics in which traditional theology is replaced with extraterrestrial teleology. Whether De Palma’s reliance on this arthritic commonplace indicates a failure of imagination or a commercially minded cynicism is a delicate question. A glance at his career to date, however, may suggest an answer.

From his earliest efforts, De Palma has been the perfect film student. Glib and overtrained, he’s always been eager to borrow from his idols, Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Howard Hawks. Sisters was his Rear Window; Obsession, his Vertigo; Blowout, his Blowup. Then, of course, there’s Scarface, his lurid and ludicrous remake of Hawks’ Scarface. In each, you can see him appropriating the camera moves, compositions, and pacing of his masters. But he does so like a talented child copying his favorite cartoon characters. The resulting images may formally resemble the originals, but they have none of their subtlety and little of their energy. Everything is laboriously overdone and consequently heavy, even oppressive.

That is why his films generally feel empty and unengaging. This is a shame because he can be a very good director when he stops being a chameleon of pure style and comes out on his own. He proved this with his hugely enjoyable and often trenchant 1987 film, The Untouchables. But even with a tough, driving script and strong actors, he couldn’t resist some flashy filching. The film almost founders on one overwrought scene designed as a smirking homage to Sergei Eisenstein. In it, De Palma reworks Potemkin’s famous Odessa steps heartstopper with his own toddler in a carriage careering down the stone steps of a train station while Eliot Ness’s feds shoot it out with Al Capone’s mob. This spectacular but enormously self-indulgent set piece is not storytelling; it’s just vulgar preening.

This is De Palma’s signature failing. For him, filmmaking is almost always about previous filmmaking. It’s preeminently an exercise in form over substance. Worse, operating in a postmodernist mode, he feels compelled to prove he’s cooler than his subject matter. Irony must always trump mere meaning.

Given this background, I’m persuaded that the trouble with Mission to Mars is the unacknowledged mockery at its frigid heart. This time, De Palma has stolen from another master. He’s broken into Stanley Kubrick’s one indisputable masterwork, 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, and ransacked it thoroughly. Like most thieves, however, he has little respect for his loot. He only values it for what it can do for him.

Like 2001, Mission focuses on astronauts who stumble upon the remains of a mysterious alien force. Instead of Kubrick’s black and seamless monoliths, De Palma has given his aliens a human face in the form of a huge, somewhat Egyptian sculpture, its elegant nose rising a couple of stories above the peak of a Martian mountain. When approached by the first astronauts to land on the red planet, this mountain turns into a whirlwind of sand. It twists and turns until it resembles nothing so much as the wrong end of a Hoover that then quickly sucks three of the astronauts into its vacuum, pulling their bodies limb from limb. Luke Graham (Don Cheadle in a lucklessly desperate role) alone survives to send an SOS home to his space-station buddies.

As a rescue mission is quickly assembled, the script takes pains to have us empathize with its crew. We learn the journey will be hazardous. The mission controller (an avuncular and ponderous Armin Mueller-Stahl) wants to wait for a more propitious planetary alignment, noting that haste is not essential since they have no way of knowing whether or not Luke is still alive and it will take more than a year to get there, anyway. But spaceman Woody Blake (an insufferably earnest Tim Robbins) insists they blast off immediately. (Didn’t he learn anything from his look-alike Tom Hanks in Apollo 13?) What’s more, he demands that Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) be given “right seat forward” as his navigator. Again, the mission controller demurs. Jim is not ready, he points out reasonably enough. Although he had been in line for the original mission, his wife died of some unnamed ailment, and he went into a protracted period of mourning that prevented him from completing his training. At this Woody explodes, “What was his crime? That he showed a little emotion?” When it comes to Mars, he goes on indignantly, Jim “wrote the book.” The clincher comes when Jim stoutly speaks for himself “I know the protocols for the Mars recovery ship better than anyone else because I designed them.” If it’s sympathy De Palma wanted for his characters, he’s certainly earned it. You can’t help feeling sorry for guys who have to deliver lines like these.

As in 2001, there is plenty of disorienting gravity-free activity shipboard, as the second team soars into inky space. De Palma’s camera does 360’s, following the astronauts walking weightlessly about their ship’s interior. Woody even dances with his wife, Terry (Connie Nielsen), who’s on the mission also. (We’re told earlier that research has proved spousal teams to be a stabilizing influence on such long-term journeys. Give De Palma a point for supporting monogamy, a rare enough quirk in Hollywood extravaganzas.) Although these scenes are done with great technical finesse, none of them surpasses what Kubrick accomplished 32 years ago. More tellingly, Kubrick’s simulated space scenes served his theme. In their gravity-free environment, his astronauts were made to seem not only weightless but also strangely somnambulistic as though they had become mere automatons in the grip of a technology they no longer understood, much less controlled. In contrast, De Palma’s space scenes only serve to display his filmmaking wizardry.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with spectacle for spectacle’s sake. When the film turns mystical, however, it becomes unforgivably offensive. This happens shortly after the rescue team lands and learns how to “talk” reassuringly to the crabby Martian monument. In no time at all, a crevice opens in its looming brow, emitting a blinding light from its interior. Despite their predecessors’ rude welcoming, the rescue team hurries off to see what’s inside. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Terry asks Luke gently. His answer is predictable: “I’m not sure about anything anymore. But I didn’t come a hundred million miles to turn around at the last ten feet.”

Inside the face, they find themselves in a near duplicate of the uncanny room that appears at the end of 2001. It glows with light from every side, including floor and ceiling, and echoes with eerie squeaks and scrapes as if the astronauts were walking on glass. Suddenly, a holographic image of a Martian woman appears, done up in an Egyptian coiffure. With the aid of other holographs, she silently explains the tragic fate that befell Mars eons ago, a single computer-generated tear running down her phantasmal cheek to make sure we don’t miss the poignancy of the moment. It seems some natural disaster had convinced the Martians to decamp to other galaxies posthaste. Before they left, however, they had just enough time to plant the seeds of life on a barren Earth. A display of the Martian role in instigating earthly evolution follows, provoking Luke to gasp in reverent awe: “My God! That’s it! Hundreds of millions of years ago there was a sudden explosion of life on Earth and no one’s ever understood how or why until now!” My God, indeed. In the beginning was Martian DNA, and the darkness grasped it not. Nor, for that matter, did I. What follows this revelation is even more perplexing: a glimpse of the eschatology the kindly Martians have prepared for their earthling offspring. It looks about as heavenly as a recycled Star Trek set.

Kubrick wisely left his aliens ambiguous. Their artifacts were harbingers of unplumbed mysteries. He meant his film to be a poetic meditation on our timeless longing for redemption and salvation. His protagonist’s name, David Bowman, evokes this theme by echoing our formative religious and philosophical traditions, fusing the Hebraic David with the Hellenic Odysseus, known as the bowman for his triumphant archery in Homer’s poem. Bowman’s rendezvous with interstellar destiny suggests we may yet free ourselves from the soul-deadening materialism that currently threatens our humanity.

In contrast, De Palma is excessively literal regarding his aliens, and, I think, cynically manipulative. This I find personally offensive, for it insults my mother’s faith. When I was 12, she told my sister and me of a theory she had formulated. Reasoning that God must have had a purpose when He created the planets, she wondered if He hadn’t set them in orbit to provide us acreage on which to settle in our afterlives. Knowing that this wasn’t quite orthodox, she advised us to keep her speculation indoors; there was no point in frightening the neighbors.

I remember being silently amused at the time. The enlightened education she was buying me had already begun to pay off in a precocious, not to say unwarranted, knowingness. Today, however, I’m chastened when I recall my youthful arrogance. I now know my mother’s untutored speculations were much wiser than my shallow sophistication. As I was to discover later, she had devised her theory shortly after learning she was dying of leukemia. It was a time when the promise of salvation had understandably taken on more than usual urgency for her. Clearly, she wanted a concrete guarantee of its validity. When she looked up at the gleaming, orb-speckled night, she found it, not just for herself, but for her family and humanity at large. She faced death bravely because she was convinced it was only a passage to something more and, she hoped, better.

And why not? Why shouldn’t we see in the majesty of the heavens the visible testimony of God’s concern for us? What could be more logical, what more traditional? I’m quite sure my mother never read Dante, but I’ve no doubt she would have found his cosmic speculations quite congenial —at least those that didn’t dwell on punishing the bejesus out of his enemies. Like most believing women of her time—perhaps any time—her regard for the doctrines of purgatory and hell wasn’t robust.

Needless to say, De Palma is no Dante. He has served up yet another science fiction travesty of my mother’s natural hope in supernatural answers. His mandate for doing so is all too evident. As I write, his film is number one at the box office. It’s cashing in on our popular culture’s sad but predictable hankering to fill the vacuum left by the widespread decline of traditional theology. De Palma’s pseudoscientific hooey is resonating profitably with the same crowds who were spellbound by Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jodie Foster’s Contact, films in which salvation arrives in spaceships and alien emanations. This is an audience largely made up of the sophisticates our universities annually turn loose on the body politic. Having had the idea of a personal God trained out of them, they can’t help themselves. The prospect of benevolent aliens taking charge of human destiny turns them to dewy-eyed mush every time. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the difficulty with losing faith is not that people will believe in nothing, but rather that they will believe in anything.

While such credulity in the masses is unfortunate, it’s unspeakable in those people of talent and intelligence who would abuse it in the pursuit of fame and riches.