The year is 2020, and a group of astronauts are having a party down on Earth to celebrate the upcoming manned mission to the planet Mars, but Woody (Tim Robbins), who is not going, and Luke (Don Cheadle), who is, are worried about their friend Jim (Gary Sinise) who had been earmarked to join the mission until his wife died, leaving him a shadow of his former self. Nevertheless, life goes on so over a year later Luke and his crew are on the alien world's surface and investigating the environment there. However, these four are heading for disaster when something is awakened by their presence...
Did you see Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey? Did you enjoy it until the end when you lost the plot strands and wish it was far better explained? Perhaps you saw Apollo 13 and enjoyed that too? And wish there was a way of melding the two films into an easily understandable science fiction epic, I mean, after all, Contact got a bit confusing as well, and that was along the same lines? Well, this is your lucky day, because Brian De Palma has directed Mission to Mars, brought to you by the people at Disney, which provides plenty of space exploration adventure along with a Chariots of the Gods finale for good measure.
If, however, you are looking for speculative fiction with a more imaginative edge, which doesn't look as if it has been cobbled together from odds and ends of other, better films, then you would be advised to seek satisfaction elsewhere. There's no real aggreement on which of the talented De Palma's films is his worst, but Mission to Mars is liable to come up eventually, and yet with all of his projects there is at least one sequence which shows you a director to be reckoned with. There's not much of that here, but he does make this gleam with a gloss and sheen fitting for a plot preoccupied with technology.
And it's the technological aspects which come off the best, as the human element is one small step above that of a daytime soap opera. Corny would be the kindest way of describing the human interaction here, with the director's uncertain way with sentiment effectively scuppering any chance of taking the story seriously. With Robbins and Connie Nielsen as a husband and wife team sent to rescue the previous Mars mission, along with Sinise and comic relief Jerry O'Connell, the message would appear to be that the easiest method to get over bereavement is to have a close encounter of the third kind.
The business with the second lot of astronauts travelling to the red planet is the best bit, where some suspense can be generated. This is mainly down to the scenes where the spaceship is damaged by a storm of tiny rocks as they approach their rendezvous, but even that is sabotaged by the need for product placement for a soft drink to save the day - and later on a well-known confectionery does the same when working out how to contact the Martians, rendering this film rather too close to a big budget Mac and Me for comfort. For a work aiming so desperately for spiritual profundity it misses by miles, and the special effects-filled climax where there's a meeting of minds between a godlike alien and us lowly humans is frankly laughable. Maybe Kubrick was right, and being vague was the best way to handle the great, big unknowables. Music by Ennio Morricone.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.