Even the most devoted fans of American director Brian De Palma – and I am a proud member of that club – are likely to be thrown for a loop by Mission to Mars.
It was greeted by viciously negative criticism abroad, held up as the ultimate proof of De Palma's vacuity as an artist and his slackness as an entertainer.
Mission to Mars is unlike anything De Palma has done before. Not only is it a foray into a genre new to him (science fiction), but it has very few of the elements devotees love in his action-mystery-thrillers, from Sisters (1973) to Snake Eyes (1998): no intrigues with point-of-view, identity masquerade or elaborate deception schemes.
The film belongs to a mystical-visionary tradition in sci-fi cinema that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Solaris (1972) and – mother of them all – Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Movies of this kind attempt strenuously to defuse the usual, generic assumptions that all alien life forms are likely to be monstrous, invasive and savagely incomprehensible. They are peace-loving tracts about forging a new, universal community.
De Palma and his writers remove all ambiguity on this point from the first scenes. The characters – including Jim (Gary Sinise), Woody (Tim Robbins) and Terri (Connie Nielsen) – are soulful, sensitive types who speak of space exploration as "life reaching out to life" in a "new world".
Once on board a rather faulty craft to Mars, one half expects that the interrelations between these sturdy professionals will degenerate into the dog-fighting familiar from The Thing (1982) or Reservoir Dogs (1992) – but for the most part, everyone keeps their noble cool, no matter what catastrophe occurs.
De Palma's projects have sometimes seemed a step behind market trends. Underrated films including Wise Guys (1986) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) missed their moment with the public, and suffered accordingly. Mission to Mars, similarly, will seem to many like a pale re-run of the most recent epic in visionary sci-fi mode, Robert Zemeckis' Contact (1997).
There is much in common between the two films – particularly the way they combine private, intimate experiences of grief and loss (here, Jim's memories of his late wife) with cosmic questions of destiny and revelation. But Mission to Mars is, for me, a more endearing, intriguing and coherently stylised piece.
To appreciate the film's virtues, audiences need to gear themselves to an unusually slow rhythm, an ambient mood and a series of deliciously 'floating' sensations. Literally as well as figuratively, this is a film about weightlessness, about the baroque strangeness of places and the wonder of human perception when jolted into a new realm.
There are flaws. Some of the dialogue is pretty woeful, and De Palma's obligatory opener – a roving, ten minute take during a picnic – adds little. On the plus side, the film's big scenes – such as a lethal dust storm on Mars, and repair operations out in the void of space – are handled with a restraint that renders them, paradoxically, absolutely gripping.
Both general audiences and De Palma specialists are going to have a hard time coming to terms with Mission to Mars. For the former, it may lack terror, suspense, and three-dimensional characterisation; for the latter, it is undoubtedly a long way below a masterpiece such as Carlito's Way (1993). But it remains a fascinating, beautifully crafted film on many levels.
© Adrian Martin April 2000