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MISSION TO MARS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Tim Robbins
Director: Brian De Palma
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Features: See Review
Length: 113 Minutes
Release Date: September 12, 2000

Film ***

Before reviewing Mission to Mars, I would like to express my admiration for the man who directed the movie, who is veteran filmmaker Brian De Palma. Mr. De Palma is, perhaps, one of the greatest directors this world will ever know. The look he gives his movies, and the way he directs them are illustrations of why I love movies so much. He is the current master of camera work. In each of is movies, especially those that are shot with wide lenses, De Palma uses amazing camera tilts, and maneuvers it in some scenes to reveal something in the stories, sometimes. Carlito’s Way and The Untouchables are De Palma’s reigning masterpieces, and Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, Casualties of War, and Mission: Impossible are great achievements as well. Another aspect that makes De Palma the master that he is, is his talent for long steady-cam shots, which for me, is one of the most breathtaking elements of cinema. Take for example, his opening shot of his 1998 suspense-thriller Snake Eyes, last for an amazing 15 minutes, as the camera follows Nicolas Cage’s crooked detective character throughout most of a boxing arena, and the camera doesn’t not cut until a pivotal moment that sets the story. It was an all around treat for the eyes, which is one of the main reasons I gave it a ***1/2 review, because it more than made up for the movie’s several flaws.

Mission to Mars, while not flawless, is a visually dazzling spectacle. It’s a sci-fi adventure where even the best parts seemed to be inspired from such other sci-fi adventures such as Dune, Total Recall, and most notably, Stanley Kubrick’s crowning achievement 2001: A Space Odyssey. In some cases, that strategy can make a movie fall flat, but in this case it doesn’t, thanks to the director at the helm. Brain De Palma uses his masterful directing skills to make the scenes and atmosphere in his film all his own, and he succeeds at that flawlessly.  And De Palma’s vision of outer space is awe inspiring, indeed, and the way he uses his camera to explore certain areas and spaceships is likely to astound you like it did me. Consider one pivotal scene that remained in my mind long after I saw it. It’s a steadicam shot that covers just about every inch of the interior of the Mars Recovery ship, complete with sharp camera tilts that do nothing short of astound the human eye.

The central story involves a mission to permanently colonize the red planet of Mars, led by astronaut Luke Graham (Don Cheadle). The mission goes awry when an unknown force kills three crewmembers, while Luke’s whereabouts remain unknown after a brief transmission. A rescue mission is then ordered, commanded by astronauts Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) and Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), who are also longtime friends with the deserted Luke. Also on the mission is Terri Blake (Connie Nielsen, of Gladiator), Woody’s wife, and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell, aka “The Great Frank Cushman”). The crew soon encounters several mishaps, one of which causes them to abandon the ship, and maneuver behind one another in space, in a truly stunning sequence. This is one sequence in the film that, as far as I could tell, hadn’t been inspired from any other movie, then again I could be wrong, but the scene is stunning nonetheless.

They do arrive at Mars, locate the survivor, hear his story, and soon have a close encounter of the historic kind, you could say. This climatic encounter is another exercise in visual brilliance the De Palma displays in this movie. It includes a brief animated sequence, that perfectly depicts stages of evolution, which I found nothing short of remarkable, and unlike anything I had ever seen from Mr. De Palma.

As I mentioned earlier, the film isn’t 100% perfect. There are some scenes that do drag on longer than they, and with sometimes, too much unnecessary dialogue. The performances are in good quality though, with Gary Sinise confident in the lead role, though don’t look for his usual mad-dog like intensity here, as in Snake Eyes. Tim Robbins is always one of our more reliable actors, even in a small supporting role like this one. Ms. Nielsen, an actress from Denmark, and an up and rising star in the US, is a strong presence here, and Jerry O’Connell is very good in what can easily be called the film’s comic relief. But the movie’s real star is its director, who has always brought a level of originality in the visual styling of his movies. The sci-fi adventure was a genre that De Palma hadn’t touched yet, and I’m glad to see he did.

Video ****

What can I say, this disc is simply out-of-this-world!!! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). All kidding aside, this is a one of a kind anamorphic transfer from the folks at Disney. Thoroughly clear, and without a scratch of grain, this transfer helps enhance the look of  the movie’s many visual effects, which I think will result in astounding your senses much more than even watching it the theaters. It is by far the best transfer of any of De Palma’s movies, other than Mission: Impossible, which was another terrific transfer.

Audio ****

Disney’s audio quality on Mission to Mars is stellar with a capital S! The 5.1 Dolby Digital presentation is absolutely superb. One sequence, involving a mysterious whirlwind like force swirls from side to side, and it did the same sort of thing with my left and right speakers, and that astounded me. Disney has really done their homework with this release, and I consider it their best disc to date.

Features ***

Disney has done their best to upgrade their features over the years, and the extras supplied here aren’t many, but more than they usually offer, which is a good note. There is an in-depth documentary titled Vision of Mars, which focuses mainly on making the visual and special effects for the film, there is also a commentary, but unfortunately, it’s not one by De Palma as I had hoped, but by visual effects designers, and production designers, as well as director of photography Stephen K. Burum, who did a spectacular job on the film.

Summary:

Mission to Mars is so far the most unfairly panned movie of the year. In fact, both this and Snake Eyes received far too many pans than it deserved. It’s true that if a story could be just as strong as look of the film, it would be brilliant. While the movie isn’t brilliant, I still cherish it for what it is, and consider it a very fitting entry in a legacy of filmmaking from one of the most brilliant of cinematic geniuses, Brian De Palma.