The early reviews of Mission to Mars were alarmingly negative, comparing it to such overstuffed turkeys as Waterworld and Ishtar. Better comparisons would be to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, which cast such deep, dark shadows over the movie that you start to feel like you're watching it in a total eclipse. Let me put that another way: Mission to Mars manages to travel 100 million miles without breaking any new ground, but seeing as how there isn't much ground between Spaceship Earth and the Red Planet, you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. Except for a couple of longueurs, the movie is consistently entertaining and sometimes captivating. Who could ask for anything more? Sci-fi fans, perhaps. Directed by Brian De Palma from a script by Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Speed's Graham Yost, Mission to Mars steals its storyline from 2001--Robinson Crusoe discovers the meaning of life on the far side of the forest. And if the press material is to be believed, De Palma went to as much trouble as Kubrick did to accurately present the space travel of tomorrow. As in 2001, this is the source of much pleasure, although at the expense of a story that floats off into space. Basically, Mission is one of those how-do-we-get-there, how-do-we-get-out-of-here movies, and it's strangely free of internal conflict, the astronauts (including Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins) overflowing with affection for one another. Where's HAL when you need him?
There's so little plot, I hesitate to give any of it away. Besides, plot isn't what's carrying the movie, imagery is--that and gadgetry. De Palma has always been one of our most fluid directors, and sending him to outer space is like leaving a kid alone in a candy store. There are dizzying pans through zero gravity, the camera all but weightless. And there's a scary little shot where globules of blood from an astronaut's injured hand float toward a tiny hole in the spacecraft. Mission works better as science fact than as science fiction, I suppose, but only because this territory has been explored many times before. Watching the movie is like arriving in the New World on the boat that came after the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria--a thrill thrice removed.