'Mission to Mars' presents great effects, confusing plot
Director Brian De Palma's new film, "Mission to Mars," is an ambitious sci-fi thriller with dazzling specials effects and stunning cinematography - but just as stunning is the superficiality of the narrative.
De Palma reaches down within the depths of his immense talent to endow this movie with remarkable visuals and emotional resonance.
His camera pitches and rolls, flips over and goes back again, mimicking the disorientation of weightlessness in space.
The landscapes on Mars are beautiful in their monochromatic splendor - the screen washed in red. He dwarfs his actors with vast expanses of empty space and the far-reaching Martian horizon.
However, the large scale sets and backdrops, despite their beauty, are thinly-veiled derivatives of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Apollo 13" - films that maintained a clear sense of vision and purpose and expressed it in a clear, moving manner.
The movie is like a prettily wrapped gift box with all the bows and ribbons but nothing inside.
"Mission to Mars" feels too much like a child playing dress-up - a masquerade of lofty ambition that shows itself to be merely pretense.
One example is a scene where the actors are walking around the space station as the gravity-defying camera follows them. The scene exists simply to impress the audience with De Palma's technical mastery, but is more indicative of a powerful visual unsupported by narrative.
Much of the force of the movie is lost with the weakness of its narrative. De Palma does his best to create emotion and sympathy using camera movement and uplifting music - but the script only offers the audience a superficial framework with which to relate to the characters.
With missions to Mars, the enormous travel time and communication delay require the script to jump over huge time spans. Thus, integral parts of the film are rushed through or simply left out.
Exposition comes in a dizzying blur of information in the first 15 minutes, as the relationships between the characters are perfunctorily established for the audience. De Palma later relies on these flimsily-constructed relationships to create emotional resonance but finds he has no strong narrative network to support it.
The narrative's greatest offense, however, is its horrendously simple genesis theory in its horrendously simple plot that needs no more elaboration than the movie's title. It presents a completely vapid narrative with arguably the worst premise for the origin of humanity ever portrayed on film.
During a troubled rescue mission on Mars, the astronauts (played by Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielson and Jerry O'Connell) discovers the secret to the origins of life on Earth.
There turns out to be little to this theory.
Apparently, the screenwriters thought that regurgitated and simplified science babble could fully unlock the secrets to the universe.
The superficiality with which they treat their genesis theory and their refusal to elaborate on any details is an insult to the audience's intelligence.
Moreover, the extremely unsatisfying ending only obfuscates the rest of the film. The audience has no idea what to make of what they have just seen and no idea what they are supposed to take from it.
This is not for lack of contemplation. Analysis of "2001"'s unresolved ending consistently yields more interpretations, but in "Mission to Mars," the ending confuses and any analysis only confuses more.
"Mission to Mars" is much like space - pretty to look at but empty.