Mission to Mars 

Mission to Mars plays like a wannabe Cliff Notes for A Brief History of Time. Or worse, some backhanded, soft-headed homage to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Director Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes) didn't seem to have one strong idea about what he wanted to film or even why he wanted to film. Writing team Jim and John Thomas (Wild Wild West) conceived the story with Lowell Cannon; Graham Yost (Hard Rain and an upcoming remake of Planet of the Apes) was brought in to render some of the cartoon aspects of the narrative into something deeper. The effort shows in how uniformly mangled are the ideas the filmmakers try to present.

Gary Sinise (Reindeer Games) is Jim, a widowed space pilot who lost his wife (Kim Delaney in an unnecessary flashback) when both were training to go to space as part of a new program that recruits married couples. No reason is given for why NASA wants to send couples to space. Woody (Tim Robbins, Arlington Road) and Terry (Connie Nielsen) are the married couple who take over the project under the tutelage of Armin Muehler-Stahl's vaguely authoritative character. In clunkily supplied exposition we learn that Jim was canned from the mission while he grieved, which is supposed to explain Sinise's pained performance. Don Cheadle (TV's The Rat Pack) plays Luke, whose crew is killed on Mars' surface in what resembles a weird rock tornado (a storm that has something to do with a DNA formula in the film's half-formed idea of life on Mars). Therefore, the mission of the film's title is required.

The conceit of couples in space seems like a throwaway, which explains its inclusion, because nothing in the film rings authentic. How unauthentic is Mission to Mars? Well, space pilots have conversations with one another while wearing their space helmets. No one sounds muffled or watches the facial reactions of their fellow helmeted pilots to communicate nonverbally. This absence of verisimilitude makes the "serious" dialogue all the more laughable.

Never mind trying to figure out what any of the characters are talking about, because it's doubtful even the writers know. Characters spout pseudo-tech talk, written to cloud audiences into projecting the film's lack of coherence onto their own being bad listeners. Besides the awful dialogue, there's nonexistent pacing and a profusion of moments played for supposed dramatic emphasis. De Palma has never been an actor's director, but he used to know how to get them from one scene to another. Here, he literally drops actors wherever he wants with little explanation of where he's putting them, adding confusion to the already addled script. The filmmaker's attempt at specifying time and place by superimposing digital letters on the screen fails miserably because the device seems tacked-on and unsupported by the script.

The film's only ace in the hole, that of a scientific link to colonization on Mars, is used so summarily that it can't resurrect the script from a morass of borrowed ideas and gimmicky effects. From start to finish, nothing in Mission to Mars makes any sense, and we suspect that the filmmakers don't care. If there was a director for this script, it wasn't De Palma. Mission to Mars, torn between trying to be a script of ideas and a melodrama in space, wasn't a script for any director. (PG) Rating: 1

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