Simple take on complicated mission

Review: `Mars' has a brilliant pace, but the plot is not impossible to detangle.

March 10, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

`Mission to Mars' Starring Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle Directed by Brian De Palma Released by Touchstone Rated PG (Language) Running time 120 minutes Sun score:

Ever since Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" left 1968 audiences scratching their heads wondering what they'd just seen, directors have been straining to make another "2001." Only this time make it understandable.

It's time they stopped trying and gave up. Don't they realize that half the fun of Kubrick's brilliantly obtuse film was debating its meaning with your friends?

The latest to try simplifying Kubrick is Brian De Palma, who's made something of a career of aping other directors' styles (Hitchcock in "Dressed to Kill," Antonioni in "Blow Out"). The result is "Mission to Mars," a relentlessly simplistic take on the old "where did life come from?" debate that arrives with lots of beautiful visuals but hardly anything in the way of a story to back them up.

Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O'Connell, none of whom seems comfortable with the dialogue, play a quartet of astronauts on a rescue mission to Mars. Months earlier, an expedition led by their buddy Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) vanished without the proverbial trace, save for a trio of what appear to be graves and one scratchy video transmission from a clearly frazzled Graham.

Woody Blake (Robbins) is the titular head of this expedition, but he's pretty much relegated to looking dewy-eyed at crewmate Terri Fisher (Nielsen), who doubles as his wife and spends much of the film dancing seductively in front of her husband/commander.

The real force here is Jim McConnell (Sinise), an astronaut's astronaut whose career was torpedoed when he was forced to make a choice between it and his dying wife. He and his pals -- and make no mistake, these guys and gal are all great pals -- hope this mission will get him in good with NASA again and shake him out of the funk he's been suffering through since his wife's death.

This being an action movie, the crew goes through all manner of big adventures on their way to Mars. But things really get intense after they finally make it to the Red Planet, where all the mysteries of life turn out to be perfectly self-explanatory.

De Palma is clearly out to make a languid, thoughtful film that deserves to be called Kubrickian and, at least visually, he succeeds. The pacing is all slow and deliberate; even the action sequences unfold in what resembles slow motion -- fitting, because almost everything happens in the weightlessness of space, where speed is not exactly of the essence. It's all quite ethereal and surprisingly suspenseful.

But plot-wise, this is strictly paint-by-numbers stuff. These folks all love each other so much, their mission isn't so much a rescue as an extended coffee klatch; they don't take orders, they reach consensus, a dangerous thing when you're out there in space.

This is also the sort of film where the big answer, the key to it all, comes when one crew member stares at a pile of spilled M&Ms that looks conveniently like a strand of DNA. Why, of course!! Other great puzzlements are solved through similar exercises of brainpower and deductive reasoning.

When it's all over, and the film finally reveals who did what to whom those many millions of years ago, the answers are laid out in what is essentially an evolutionary primer discovered on the planet's surface. How convenient!

'Mission to Mars'

Starring Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle

Directed by Brian De Palma

Relased by Touchstone

Rated PG (Language)

Running time 120 minutes

Sun score: **

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