There's a moment near the end of Brian De Palma's "Mission to Mars" when three astronauts stand on
the brink of an unfathomable mystery. They are members of a rescue team sent to Mars to
investigate the destruction of an earlier expedition, which vanished without a trace some months before. Now, deep in the red desert, they've discovered an enormous buried structure that may have been built by alien hands. As they wonder whether they should go inside, their commander grits his teeth, stares into the darkness and says: "I didn't come one hundred million miles to turn back at the last ten feet."
If something about that line rouses you, then you're watching the right movie. I know I was.
"Mission to Mars" is a gift for the twelve-year-old kid in all of us: it's melodramatic, earnest and more than a little dumb, but if you can accept it as a throwback to a more innocent kind of filmmaking, it works. Like last year's "The Mummy," it demands a total surrender of all the usual critical impulses. For the price of a ticket, you get thrilling escapes in zero gravity, noble sacrifices, tearful farewells and a scene where the hero's life flashes before his eyes. What more do you want for eight bucks?
The movie opens in the year 2020, on the evening before the mankind's second manned flight to Mars. At a celebratory cookout straight out of "The Right Stuff," we're introduced to the main players: mission commander Luc Graham (Boogie Nights"' Don Cheadle), Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and his wife Terri (Connie Neilsen), and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), a legendary astronaut and pilot who would have flown the first mission if he hadn't pulled out of the rotation to mourn the loss of his wife. (Sinise always seems to get left behind on these long trips recall the similar role he played in "Apollo 13.")
We soon learn the tragedy of man's first mission to Mars. While investigating a strange burst of
radioactivity near a mountain, three members of the crew are swallowed by a whirlwind of dust.
(Visually, the storm -- which dashes one of the men to pieces before our eyes -- recalls the sand
worms of David Lynch's "Dune.") Graham, badly injured, barely manages to send an emergency message back to Earth before all communication is lost. Did he survive? A rescue mission is organized to find out, led by Blake and McConnell. The outer space sequences that follow are done with grace; De Palma's fluid camera movements take full advantage of the freedom of weightlessness.
Thus far, the film's pace has been leisurely, almost sluggish. But as the rescue shuttle enters
the orbit of Mars, there is a sudden, startling succession of surprises, and we realize that the
director has been playing possum. De Palma has always been known for his great action set pieces
(think of the train station shootout in "The Untouchables," and Tom Cruise dangling from the
ceiling in "Mission: Impossible"). Here, he tops himself. The ship is struck by debris, there is a
major crisis, and De Palma develops the scene with such relentless skill that just when we think
he can't go any further, he pauses, grins and gives the thumbscrews one last twist.
It's a stunning sequence that lasts twenty minutes or more, and it casts a spell over the rest of the movie. The scenes that follow in which the astronauts land on Mars, search for Graham
and try to learn what happened are routine but absorbing, if only because the adrenaline from
the landing scene never entirely leaves our bloodstream. This is becoming a common pattern in De Palma's work. He invests everything into one bravura set piece and draws on the interest for the remainder of the film. In "Mission to Mars," his strategy works, all the way up to the cornball
Is this a great movie? No. There are some real scientific howlers, as when a character looks at a
strand of DNA and immediately notices that two chromosomes are missing. And the last scene forces
the audience to suspend its sophistication and disbelief to the breaking point. One giggle, and
everything would fall to pieces. But this entire film needs to be watched in the right spirit. The
actors approach their roles with as much conviction the material allows, and because I followed them into that zone (instead of standing outside it), I had a good time. If nothing else,
"Mission to Mars" made me say "Wow!" aloud not once, but twice. That's enough for any movie.