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Mission Aborted: A Space Travesty

By James Crawford, Contributing Writer

Mission to Mars Dir. Brian De Palma

My how the mighty have fallen. Brian De Palma, who hit a directorial high watermark with _The Untouchables_ also has a nasty and annoying habit of making really bad movies. Painfully bad.

His last two efforts have suffered from a lack of structure (_Snake Eyes_) or moments of utter incomprehensibility (_Mission: Impossible_), and the trend isn't stopping anytime soon. Not if his latest effort, _Mission to Mars_, is any indication. What De Palma improves on his previous problems is negated for rampant use of overdone sci-fi conventions.

The story manages complete a cliche checklist of space movie standards: Personal and heart-warming introduction to the astronauts who are preparing to go to Mars after years of training and personal sacrifice. Check. Crew set to leave, but one guy (whose lifelong dream is to travel to the red planet) is left behind because of heartless bureaucracy. Check. Guy left behind is sad and left alone to gaze mistily into the camera and yearn for his one big shot. Check. Attractive astronauts go to Mars, but meet a nasty disaster and all end up dead, except for one. Double Check. (The disaster is a particularly nasty and vicious . . . wait for it . . . sandstorm). Backup team, spouting macho lines and passionate debate, forms rescue squad to save one survivor. Check. On the way to save him, rescue team meets one disaster after another and nearly doesn't make it. Check. But they do make it, and then uncover the secrets of life contained on Mars, thanks to some ingenious spontaneous thinking that immediately solves the problem. Check. Look, if you're really interested, just watch the trailer, which reveals all the film's major points, including the ending. Clocking in at a little over sixty seconds, catching the previews will save you one hour and fifty-nine minutes of teeth-grating, painful melodrama.

It's something this reviewer heartily advises, because there is little redemption in any aspect of the film. While the space imagery is enough to convince even the most staunch believer that the original 1969 moon landings were faked on a soundstage in Arizona, having a special effects driven movie just doesn't cut it any more. The budget has gone to securing high profile talent and the gorgeous special effects, but amid all the self congratulations going on at Disney, someone forgot that a movie must be founded on a script. It has been said that an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time will eventually write all the works of William Shakespeare. With _M2M_? One monkey, one hour. What the writing team deems a script to be a half-baked plot idea garnished with stock macho statements and head-slapping obvious observations. By the end of the first half hour, it's painful to the point of being literally laughable.

With that in mind, it's hard to fault the cast given that they've been given such empty and stale material, but each member really doesn't seem to want to be there. Tim Robbins must be appearing either because of blackmail, contractual obligations to Disney or a personal favour to Brian De Palma because he phones in most of his performance (probably when he realized how bad the whole project was going to be). Don Cheadle, who has previously been a solid bit player, lacks charisma here and Jerry O'Connell has the dubious distinction of being upstaged by the HAL like computer appearing in the first half. Not a small feat, considering the voice only appears for two minutes during one of the film's many crises. The cast spends most of the time staring into space (literally) and looking forlorn while visual effects whizz around them, but there's little pathos or sympathy involved because De Palma substitutes dramatic tension for nifty camera work. When miniature asteroids pierce the hull and Jerry O'Connell's hand, we don't care about the crew's impending death, just how cool blood looks when suspended in zero gravity.

To top of what is essentially a vapid and uninspired work of traditional box office tripe is Brian De Palma. Throughout his entire career, he has been a director with a distinct emphasis on visual style over substantiative content, and the truth remains with _M2M_. Even as the mother of all sandstorms rips space travellers apart and astronauts soar weightless through their ship before our very eyes, there's little done in these moments to further the story's cause. There is also the sense that we've seen this all before, and we have. It was called _2001: A Space Odyssey_ from which this work has ripped much of its form and content. More polite individuals might choose the terms "derivation" from or "homage" to Kubrick's great work, but so many elements are copied from space suit construction to the space station's appearance and the aforementioned computerized vocals it's almost like De Palma watched the film over and over again to get his ideas. That's a fantastic testament to Kubrick's skill and influence as a director (his was made in 1968), but also speaks volumes concerning De Palma's absolute lack of creativity. Any time he pulls a neat trick with the camera, there's an underlying sense that it's being done simply to show the world he's still got it.

The only explanation possibly for a movie that is so disappointingly and resoundingly bad this reviewer had great expectations for De Palma to resurrect himself is victimization of bad timing. Atrocious lines, leaden acting and rampant predictability are what we have come to expect from summer movies, but it seems as though final editing wasn't ready in time to capitalize on the time of year when people (and their brains) seem to go south, so some genius decided to release it during March. With all the Oscar hype infecting the air at this moment, hopefully _Mission to Mars_ will be buried like many of the film's casualties. In watching _M2M_, the only benefit is that it represents a new low standard in movie making. From this point, De Palma can only go up, and here's hoping that he does. D

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