I lost Brian De Palma around the time he stopped using Pino Donaggio as his chief source of film scores. To be fair, De Palma used the Italian maestro for 1992's Raising Cain;
that film bore more than a hint of the younger, suspenseful De Palma, the man behind Carrie, Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Blowout,
and Body Double,
a director content to twist your nerves like the garrote-strings of an over-tuned baby grand. Since then, with more mainstream fare such as Carlito's Way, Casualties of War,
and the muddled Mission: Impossible,
De Palma has reached out to embrace a larger audience and seemingly sacrificed those traits that drew us to him in the first place: his singular vision, his clinical stylistics, and the palpable sense of dread that his best films engender. It comes as little surprise, then, that Mission to Mars
falls prey to an overwhelming sense of a man trying to please everyone all the time. The net result is unlikely to please much of anyone, although there may be a few stalwarts out there who still believe James Cameron didn't do as much as he could have with the aliens of The Abyss
and will be justly overjoyed to see that De Palma has taken up where Cameron left off. Ostensibly a tale of the first manned mission to the angry red planet, Mission to Mars
quickly degenerates into a simplistic mess of botched rescue missions, the discovery of -- surprise! -- remnants of an alien society on the planet's surface, and as much hoary sentimentalism as you're willing to swallow. As the film opens, it's 2020 and a team of hotshot NASA astronauts -- led by crew commander Woody Blake (Robbins) along with three others including his wife (Nielsen), maverick stick-jockey Jim McConnell (Sinise), and O'Connell's wisecracking Phil -- have been sent to rescue the previous Mars mission, which vanished from radar abruptly after discovering some sort of massive anomaly on the planet's surface. Since the journey takes a lengthy six months, there's little hope that survivors will be found, but that doesn't stop this quartet of potential heroes from firing up the Van Halen (seriously) and giving it their best shot. Disaster awaits them, as it does for anyone foolhardy enough to brave the cold eye of Mars. You'd think these folks hadn't read any Ray Bradbury growing up, but clearly the screenwriters -- Lowell Cannon and Jim Thomas, the latter of Wild, Wild West
infamy -- have. They posit Mars as the home of all life, more or less, and there's plenty of existential head-scratching to go around once the obvious reveals itself. De Palma's film is a mess from its anxious start all the way through to its new-agey end, relying heavily on cribs from Kubrick and Cameron and even the recent Apollo 13.
Robbins and Sinise, two of the best actors working today, seem lost half the time, but then maybe that has more to do with all the CGI effects they're having to work around. Sinise, god bless him, comes through well enough, but by the time he's cuddling up to the shimmery Source of All Life, you just want to smack some sense into him. Even Ennio Morricone's score is a soggy melange of too-oft-repeated themes and orchestral histrionics. Yes, Mission to Mars
will no doubt make a fine double bill with Contact,
but is that something we really need? No, thank you.