Revisiting MISSION TO MARS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Martin Rayburn revisits Mars. Has regrets.
Scorned by critics upon its release in March 2000, Mission To Mars is quite a frustrating film to revisit as the premise holds such potential it's infuriating that it is let down by some very obvious flaws, moments where it feels condescending and overbearing, and questionable stylistic choices. I don't think it's primarily the fault of director Brian De Palma, although obviously the buck stops with him as the filmmaker, but rather as it was inspired by a Disney theme park attraction I suspect there was a lot of studio interference when creating the vision. On top of that, it's clear the myriad of writers who were attached to the project over the years had pulled the screenplay in a variety of directions. After no-doubt countless rewrites and amendments it meant that, first rate director or not, no amount of talent behind the camera could patch all the flaws in the script and plot as Mission To Mars made the journey from paper to screen. Add in a poorly realised CGI alien and some rather odd editing choices, and the finished product feels messy and unconvinced in its own premise.

Mission To Mars wants to be a science fiction adventure that is more interested in science than in fiction. Herein lies the first problem. Is the amount of gravity on Mars really equal to that of the Earth? No, but in Mission to Mars it is. So it you have more than a passing interest in science and were looking for a more realistic depiction of a potential mission to Mars, simple errors like this will likely irk you. Also, some of the dialogue is so patronising that anyone with half a brain will feel more knowledgeable than these astronauts, yet other portions of the film are written so the average Joe would probably struggle to understand some of the scientific "facts" presented. So problem number two is Mission To Mars alienated the popcorn market looking for the next Armageddon, and unsurprisingly struggled to turn a profit on it's $100 million budget. I myself skipped it at the multiplex two decades back, thanks to the negative reviews, and waited for the DVD release. Watching it again, for only the second time, 20 years later there are two main positives that struck me throughout which I can not fault - the cinematography (it's stunning on Blu-ray, I can only imagine how breathtaking the film's Mars must be in 4k) and the score by Ennio Moricone. The story, how it evolves and clunky dialogue which the, usually, very strong cast are made to deliver, though... oh my!
Mission to Mars opens with a backyard barbecue which one can assume was intended to introduce the characters and developing conditions. We meet Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) whose dream of traveling to Mars has been delayed, astronauts Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and his loving wife Terri (Connie Nielsen), and Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) who will take the place of McConnell on the Mars-I mission. The setup here neither develops the characters or the situations. The introduction consists only of talking heads. We meet these characters but learn their intentions through flat dialogue rather than descriptive actions.

After a clumsy time jump, that was desperately in need of a rocket launch sequence, we skip ahead to Mars where a team of astronauts on the red planet, commanded by Cheadle's character Luke Graham, are working on a project without motive or premise. Within minutes, an unexpected discovery turns into a disastrous encounter leaving several dead and Graham stranded alone. There are a few thrilling scenes here, thanks to the film's excellent usage of special effects, especially within the martian sandstorm, coupled with that fantastic cinematography - if you didn't know better you might think it was shot on location.
After another clumsy time jump, equally devoid of rocket launch, the repurposed Mars-II is tasked with the rescue mission comprised of the unsurprising crew of Blake, Terri, Jim, and Jerry O' Connell (Phil Ohlmyr). Once on Mars, after a horrible causality, the astronauts discover Luke living off oxygen from plants. Here Mission To Mars presents some of its dumbest dialogue but does gradually build intrigue though suggestions contained in the third act, raising the line of tension as it explores the origin of life. This is intriguing for sure, but beyond the closing scenes there is very little suspense and at no point do you believe a character's life is at stake, and even if you did nothing in the script or on the screen has made you really care for them anyway.

De Palma's direction is focused but shallow. He seems to spend more time on the character's recycled intentions than engaging in portions regarding Mars. He also fails to create a honest sense of time lapsing, rather in another case of telling instead of showing, the characters explain how time passes and how months have traveled by. Simply, without the dialogue you can't determine whether the story takes place over an hour or a year. That feels like something which should've been addressed in the edit.
Mission To Mars also has a strange kitchen-spoon-alien which looks like it was realised for a high-budget CBeebies show. It was clearly supposed to be the key component of what should've been a major emotional scene as a single tear roles down its face, but dependent on the mood you're in when approaching the film this scene will likely either make you cringe or laugh.

Mission to Mars then is a movie of wasted potential and misused & inconsistent special effects. There are believably realised spacecraft, beautiful cinematography, some nifty camera effects, moments of intrigue and a strong score, to name a few of the film's skillful successes. However, the film is desperately lacking clear intentions, is riddled with clunky dialogue, underdeveloped characters, and worst of all devoid of dramatic impact.

Should you revisit Mission To Mars? Mmmmaybe... if you're a particular fan of space movies. But if you do I think you'll find revisiting it once every 20 years is probably enough.

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