Film (2000). Touchstone Pictures. Directed by Brian De Palma. Written by Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost from a story by the two Thomases and Lowell Cannon. Cast includes Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise. 109 minutes. Colour.
Pseudo-mystical silliness – which owes not a little to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – abounds in this story of First Contact with alien life. In the year 2020, the first manned mission to Mars becomes a disaster when communications suddenly cease from the four astronauts on the planet's surface; the final message is from a wounded astronaut who incoherently explains that his companions have been killed. A second rescue mission is dispatched; after various disasters the surviving crew reach Mars. Linking up with the last remaining member of the original Mars mission, the astronauts find a large metallic sculpture of a humanoid face on the planet's surface; the same sculpture that emitted a "force" to kill the previous explorers. The astronauts decipher and answer an aural puzzle which causes a door in the sculpture to open. Within, a colourful audio-visual display indicates that Mars was once teeming with life, including intelligent bipeds. After a cataclysmic meteor impact, the Martians had scattered to other worlds, some to the neighbouring planet Earth where they triggered (and by implication guided) the evolution of complex life. Three of the astronauts return home. The other, overcome with a Sense of Wonder, boards a Martian spacecraft that takes him on to destinations unknown.
Almost devoid of original ideas, Mission to Mars endeavours to present an optimistic and heroic image of the American space programme. Burdened with a lifeless script, the film plods along gamely until a comically misjudged finale, complete with soaring orchestral score and cartoon-like aliens, sinks it in absurdity. This was not a high point in the distinguished but uneven career of De Palma. [JN]
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