Mission To Mars

Micrometerorites can really ruin your day
Brian De Palma
Gary Sinese, Tim Robbins, Connie Neilson, Don Cheadle, Jerry O’Connell
The Setup: 
One group sent to explore Mars doesn’t come back, another is sent to investigate.

If you read this site much at all you know that I pretty much want to lick Brian de Palma’s balls. I worship him. And since I have been finding success in revisiting some of his movies that I hated upon first viewing [such as Raising Cain and Body Double], I thought I’d take another look at this one and see if either I had missed the boat on the first go-round, or at least to discern what I thought he was trying to get at here.

I saw this movie in the theater when it first came out, because I was way psyched about De Palma even back then, and walked out pretty much disgusted. The sluggishness. The annoying characters. The sentimentality and horrid forced ‘sense of wonder.’ WHAT was that? I thought. So I wasn’t really dying to revisit it. I liked it a lot better this time, but ultimately still consider it among the weakest of De Palma’s films, and can’t really understand what would have interested him in making it.

We open with a countdown and a rocket flying into the sky. It explodes and rains streamers down onto a party below, having been just a model rocket, to our surprise. We learn that it is 2020, and in a lot of typical Rope-like long, elaborate single takes, De Palma takes us around the party to meet all of the characters. We have the teams of two separate missions, one that is going to Mars in the morning, the other which is to join them later. This scene establishes that both teams are all good friends and are important to each other. We also learn, through some butt-clumsy exposition, that Gary Sinese’s character not only suffers from QUITE ill-advised bangs, but the death of his wife, which means that he will not actually be traveling to Mars, which has always been his life’s dream. You have to admire this expositional device, which is having another character say “You’ve been training for years for this! If Maggie hadn’t gotten sick, and you dropped out of the program to take care of her…” I assure you that this is only the slightest sliver of this particular chunk of exposition. Then Gary says he “lost Mars,” and gives a convincingly pained look while he plants a footprint in the red earth in the yard, imagining it were him on Mars. Then—cut to Mars!

Now Don Cheadle and company [including annoy-fest Kim Delaney] are on Mars and go to check out this large mound with a curious ice-like protrusion coming out [this is supposed to be the real-life “face of Mars,” which subsequent real-life higher-resolution imaging has revealed doesn’t look anything like a face at all, but rather a beer-can chicken]. It’s making some freaky electronic noise. They shoot some kind of scanner at it, and then it shoots some burst of energy back, causing them to be dazed. Then this giant sandstorm comes, air rushing toward the face, which creates this giant vortex that swirls around like a snake and looks [to me, but you know I’m a perv] like a giant uncut penis coming at them, and it sucks all of them up but Don Cheadle [Kim Delaney, thank heavens, has been vacuumed away]. We then see that this has revealed that this thing IS in fact a giant Brancusi-inspired face, clearly some kind of something from an alien intelligence.

So there’s a second where you think you’re going to get some careful screenwriting when Robbins and his wife Connie Neilson are canoodling, and say they can’t come upstairs because of what they are laughingly calling a “catastrophic power failure,” then finally go upstairs and ask what kind of accident befell their friends and are told “Catastrophic.” This re-using a word in markedly different contexts to convey the seriousness of the situation was quite good, and for a few minutes I was able to sustain high hopes for the script… until the rest of the writing beat that out of me. Speaking of this, there’s more lead-footed exposition when Connie says of the escape pod they have on Mars: “I mean, that thing is designed to get people back from the surface!”

So they’re off on this large spaceship that is clearly inspired by 2001. There is a large, round, rotating set where people can stand on the outer edge of, exactly like 2001. I thought that Gary Sinese sitting in a chair upside-down as someone walked below was a composite, but learned from the little special effects featurette that they actually just strapped him to the chair. Anyway, these fun-lovin’ astronauts can get down and rock out too, as they demonstrate by playing Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away.” Now, I really couldn’t stand Connie Neilson until I saw her in Demonlover, and this is one of those movies that came out during the height of my hate for her, crystallized in the horrifically mannered “carefree” dance she does to the aforementioned Van Halen song. I was, by the way, subjected to this a numbing THREE times in watching this disc, as it is in the movie, the trailer, and the special effects featurette. There was just, around this time, something in her acting style that I found so mannered and phony. That all changed with Demonlover, but she was bugging the fuck out of me here. Add to this the fact that she and Robbins are constantly making kissy faces and coo-cooing all over each other, which we are to believe the rest of the crew finds charming and adorable, rather than nauseating. After months in space. And with one of their friends who must be acutely aware that if things were different his wife would now be with him—but she’s DEAD! And his “good buddy” keeps inadvertently shoving that in his face. Get a fucking spacepod!

Also unfortunately and discordantly on hand is Jerry O’Connell. Yes, the guy from Tomcats and Kangaroo Jack. He’s supposed to be the happy-go-lucky goofy one, but is unfortunately hampered in this particular role by his inability to act. His every appearance breaks the mood the rest of the movie is trying so hard to sustain. There are plenty of other good actors [though perhaps not as cheap] that could really bring some believability to this role, and it’s kind of unfortunate we ended up with ol’ Jer.

Anyway, Connie and Jerry are sitting at some monitor pretending to press buttons, when suddenly Jerry gets injured in the hand [too bad it missed his head]. It would seem that they passed through a field of micrometeorites, some of which have punctured the hull. So they have to find out where the tiny leaks are, which requires Dr. Pepper and courage. Gary decides that he can’t take time to get his helmet, even though they’re losing oxygen, and Connie tells him: “Get your helmet. You could embolize.” He works and works until he’s gasping and nearly passing out, when theoretically, if he had gotten his helmet, they would have a lot more time to fix the leaks, leading me to want to shout “will you just get your fucking helmet and spare us the theatrics? And cut those STUPID bangs while you’re at it.” The movie is cut so that all of the astronauts have a moment of triumph at the same time. Yay, human spirit!

Now, I know that astronauts have a lot on their minds, but it would seem to be that if a few micrometerorites passed through the front of your ship, it’s a fair assumption to think some may have also passed through the back. But no, Tim was so eager to get back to making Eskimo kisses with Connie that he didn’t even bother to cast an eye toward the rear of the ship, which was really savaged by those pesky MMs. So when they flood their tubes with fuel a bunch goes shooting out into space, and when they fire their rockets it ignites and blows the shit out of the back of their ship.

All of this is making me want to watch Red Planet again. I’m gonna put that on my list right now.

So, they’re fucked. And all because of carelessness. Okay—I’m supposed to sympathize with these people? Anyway, luckily for them there’s some handy-dandy capsule just a-floatin’ around, is capable of transporting them to the surface, and will be by in just a few minutes. So they all “abandon ship” [I think this entire sequence happened just so they could “abandon ship,”] and go outside. Tim goes forward with a rope, and attaches it to the ship, but overshoots and ends up in space. [Now, you DID notice that I said there were spoilers here, right?] I didn’t so much think of it at the time, but now I think ‘why didn’t he just hold onto the line he was bringing over? Or attach himself to it before hooking it to the ship? Why can’t this guy THINK?’ If you’ve seen the movie you know the guy dies a cold and chilly death above Mars, and looking back, maybe that’s for the best. He’s a dumpkoff, and frankly I think Connie is better off without him. Besides, Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact, it’s cold as hell.

Anyway, so they all make it out to capsule, and Connie, against everyone’s advice, goes out to try to save her husband. She doesn’t have enough fuel in her little jet-pack to get him and get back, and in order to prevent her from throwing her life away [then why didn’t you do this before you married her?], he opens his helmet and commits space seppuku, freezing instantly while Connie screams her head off. She eventually goes back to her buds and they land on Mars, and it can be fairly tender so long as you don’t dwell on the fact that all of this is really due to Robbin’s thoughtlessness, and his death will probably spare them additional calamities in the future. There is then an overly majestic raising of the American flag which left me quite cold, but then it occurred to me that this may have been a grave for Robbins. Unfortunately we get to see neither the spaceship NOR Robbins be incinerated upon entering the atmosphere, which is like total bunk.

Anyway, soon they meet with Don Cheadle, who has gone crazy but snaps back in just a few seconds. He’s living off the oxygen supplied by just a few spider plants in a tent that seemed to have giant tears in the roof relentlessly flapping in the wind [maybe there were just a lot of things that weren’t clear]. I don’t know, I kind of thought you had to have a LOT of plants in order to have enough air to live on. And doesn’t the arrival of three new people have an effect on that? Well, whatever. Don plays them the sound from the face and shows it to the trio, who are suitably amazed. Connie is so swept away she seems to have completely forgotten that she just watched her beloved husband die a few minutes prior. The sound is an aural reproduction of human DNA with certain bits missing, and Gary figures out in a snap that it is a sphinx-like riddle, and they need to beam the right answer to the face. This is what happened to the guys who got sucked into the giant uncut cock; they gave the wrong answer. Now, did you know that equipment that can translate complex graphics like a correctly-sequenced strand of DNA into a sound pattern comes standard on all NASA Mars landers? What’s more, it takes mere seconds to do this! They really ARE advanced. So turns out this was the right answer and the martians open the door.

They three go into the face, leaving Jerry behind [he’s too odious to meet with aliens, a smart move for intergalactic diplomacy], where they are soon greeted by a very Disney-looking Alien who hosts them at a super-advanced IMAX 3-D presentation depicting the planets. Seems that Mars used to be very Earth-like and teeming with oceans and life and all, until it got hit with some projectile that burned the whole surface, but somehow spared enough life to fill a bunch of spaceships from all over the planet, which all launched at once. They all went to some distant galaxy, but sent one to Earth for… some… reason… and that’s what turned into life on Earth [“they seeded Earth”]. We have a little computer-animated sequence showing life crawling from the oceans and evolving and becoming mankind, blah, blah, blah. And it left this one Martian on Mars to hang out until the humans figured out how to get there, and now he’s going to take them to wherever they went, for some reason. The rest decide to go back, but Gary decides to go with the aliens in a sort of Close Encounters-type thing. So he enters this advanced elevator that fills with breathable water [in an Abyss-like move] and rises up within this sculpture that heavily implies that the horrific “family of man”-type sculpture of the 60s and 70s originated in space as well.

There’s one more dollop of false drama added as Jerry is going to push the launch button after they have been gone EXACTLY 20 minutes. No, he cannot cut his buddies a little slack on the timing thing, and if they can’t be back from THE FUCKING ALIEN SHIP THAT NO HUMAN HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE in 20 minutes, well, then they get left behind. Too bad. Luckily they make it in time! We see Gary, on the alien ship, sort of reviewing his life, and finally spiritually reconnecting with his dead life. He takes off for the distant galaxy in a shot that mirrors the opening shot of the rocket [and is also sperm-into-egg], and the final line is: “Have a great ride, Jim.”

Ugh. I actually like this movie much less since writing this review, during which a lot of the creaky parts became more obvious. I was kind of impressed that I was thoroughly enjoying it for the first hour, in contrast to when I first saw it in the theater. I think because when I saw it in the theater I was expecting something that would be somewhat exciting [as the trailer, which we will discuss below, leads you to believe], whereas this time I had more of an idea what I was in for and could get into the relationships and how they were being set up. I liked that it took the time to set up the bond between the crew of mission one and mission two, so you can understand what the stakes would have been—if the screenplay hadn’t fucked up all the relationships in the second half by having the characters seem barely phased by learning that their friends [an in some cases, husbands] are now dead. Nevertheless, I was sort of into the whole mystery of what caused the giant sand-foreskin vortex, and could get into the setting up of these relationships and the seemingly quite scientific basis for the reality of life on the space station and such. Also retaining interest was the typical De Palma directing style, making much of the orange martian landscape, and certain scenes, such as the sand-foreskin or the rescue after the micrometeorites, interesting, if not completely exciting. His direction was more muted and not as flashy, as it usually is when he has a story that is more serious, but you still are in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing and knows how to put an exciting frame together.

But there are just so many problems. Most of which start to become more and more apparent as one heads further into the second half. As the astronauts go through their travails with the micrometeorites, one begins to think “Where is this going? What does this have to do with anything?” Then later, looking back, it doesn’t really have to do with anything. It just seems to be ‘rough adventures on the way to Mars,’ and if you’re me, you start looking back and resenting the stuff you had to sit through that could have been cut. Also, maybe I’m jaded, but the big revelation at the end just wasn’t exciting enough for me to care much. Wasn’t that one of the basic premises of the original Battlestar Galactica? It’s just not that big a deal, and also unfortunately leaves one with a feeling of “that was IT?” I’m also not sure why they would all go one way and send one another way [I’m trying to be vague since we’re out of the spoiler zone], or why wouldn’t they ALL decamp there? Lastly, the overbearing “sense of wonder” and sentimentality of the final minutes really turned me off. But I guess the child inside me has died and my heart is now a tiny, pockmarked hunk of coal.

Because of all this, I can’t really divine what might have interested De Palma in doing this. Was it the chance to learn how to work with large-scale special effects? Was it the larger themes? Was it space? I don’t get it.

The trailer actually manages to make the film look worse than it is. In retrospect, it conveys the general shapelessness of the movie quite accurately, although at the time I gave De Palma the benefit of the doubt and thought the movie must just be too complex to compress into something that looks like a thriller. It does sort of try to sell it as a mixture of 2001 and a blow-out space thriller, and ultimately just looks like a giant mess. The movie itself isn’t as much of a mess as the trailer makes it look like.

The description on the Netflix envelope goes out of its way to mention the commentary by the special effects guys—and I always like it when someone feels so passionately about something they try to work it in anywhere they can. Nevertheless, I didn’t listen to it. I did watch the special effects featurette though, which was pretty interesting, and shorter. It is also full of the typical aggrandizement we’ve come to expect, my favorite part being someone commenting on how De Palma has his spaceships enter the frame from odd angles, which he says is something “no one had ever seen before.” There is also a deliciously catty bit of bellyaching from a member of the crew, who complains that “someone” among the trio of Sinese, Neilson, and O’Connell was a heavy smoker, and had to be cut down from the wires and taken out of his / her spacesuit every 40 minutes. The special effects are truly spectacular, but it’s one of those things that makes one sad that so many people toiled for so many hours on something so ultimately misguided.

Should you watch it: 

If you want. But there are lots of better De Palma movies to watch first, and there are lots of better space movies.


This movie came out just as I was entering grad school for aerospace engineering. A girl in our class convinced us all to go see it, and we enthusiastically agreed because hey, space! Mars! That'll be perfect for us noobie rocket scientists!

We were tremendously disappointed, but still willing to give movies a chance to inspire us. Our next group outing was to a highly-recommended film, lots of hype, big name stars, also somehow involving space adventures: The Astronaut's Wife.

After that we kind of stopped going out to movies together.

I actually quite liked Astronaut's Wife--in terms of its atmosphere--but it needs to be understood as a remake of Rosemary's Baby more than any kind of space film. Anyway, thanks for your tales... sad for aerospace engineers to try to be inspired by the movies!

Apollo 13 and October Sky were both great. And The Right Stuff, for all its 70s cheese, was inspirational when I was a kid. So we had our movies to watch when we wanted to be rah-rah-rockets :)