Mars Needs Work

De Palma’s MISSION TO MARS is the nearest thing to a De Palma film De Palma doesn’t like in DE PALMA. De Palma De Palma De Palma. But it’s not clear that he doesn’t think it’s a masterpiece along with all his other films, he just didn’t enjoy making it. All those special effects, taking forever.

The stuff on Earth is very recognizably De Palmaesque, with long Steadicam shots and so on. The stuff in space is more anonymous, I suspect because effects weren’t quite at the stage where he could rove about as he liked. There’s one very good spacewalking suspense bit, subsequently borrowed and improved upon in GRAVITY, and there’s a weirdly counterproductive Morricone score, and too many scenes where actors slowly, casually do things they should be doing in a desperate hurry. I can’t quite account for that. De Palma does talk about how he likes slow set-pieces with few sound effects, to make room for the music, but this is the only film of his where whole scenes are dragged out that really NEED to be played fast.There’s a certain class of actor who play astronauts, isn’t there? THE RIGHT STUFF established Ed Wood Harris (WTF?) in particular as NASA’s representative on Earth, so he turns up in APOLLO 13 and as the voice of Ground Control in GRAVITY. APOLLO 13 then brought Gary Sinise into the fold, and here he is again. Matt Damon is a space guy in INTERSTELLAR and a different one in THE MARTIAN. If you’re making ALIEN or something you can cast anyone, but for realistic or near-future spacey shows there’s this limited pool.

Sinise is his old reliable self here, Connie Nielsen is lovely — you’d want somebody who smiles like that on a space mission — Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle add character, There’s this guy, Jerry O’Connell, who’s like the comedy relief astronaut — you expect him to whip out a harmonica. I didn’t enjoy him much but by the end I kind of dug him. There’s an unbelievable exchange where they’re looking down from space at the Martian base they’ve lost contact with, and he gets excited because there’s only three graves, so one guy must be alive, right? Then it’s pointed out that the guy probably couldn’t bury HIMSELF.But it’s quite diverting — of course the effects have dated curiously (I haven’t looked at TITANIC lately, but those seas NEVER looked real) but not offensively. And then it all goes to shit at the end when the CGI alien shows up. “We just ran out of money,” De Palma hints, though he doesn’t specifically list the ET as a casualty of this. It’s one cheap-ass-looking alien. The decision to do a bunch of things that could only be done with CGI — which seems to make sense, on the face of it — results in something that looks like nothing else but CGI. It should have been played by a human in prosthetics, maybe a tall African like in ALIEN, but I guess this was too soon for CGI enhancements to actors — they could just about erase Sinise’s legs in FORREST GUMP but Frank Langella’s subtractive scar in THE BOX was a ways away. Was a ways aways away.

There’s just not enough of De Palma’s bravura technique and obnoxious personality in this. BLACK DAHLIA looks kind of anonymous too — but I recently acquired REDACTED and PASSION so I’m curiously about those. Maybe it’s time for a De Palma Week, or would my skepticism get wearying?

11 Responses to “Mars Needs Work”

  1. Jeff Gee Says:

    In a better world, THE RIGHT STUFF would indeed have established Ed Wood as NASA’s representative on earth. In that world, the right stuff would have been angora.

  2. Ed WOOD? Now there’s a bit of astronaut casting I’d like to see.

  3. Aw, they beat me to the Ed Woodshed.

  4. Wow, where did THAT come from? I WAS still drinking my morning coffee when I typed the above, but I can’t conceive of the mental connection that made it happen. Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Harris are both in Westworld, I suppose…

  5. I’m not really a fan of Mission To Mars for the ‘anonymous’ aspects that you mention – the effects seemed to stop De Palma from being able to be De Palma to a certain extent. The one exception is probably the spinning death that takes place early on, although even that is a much limper version of the more spectacular set piece that occurs in The Fury.

    (I also really don’t like the Morricone score on this. Its a bit to organ-y and overscoring the wonder too much)

    This was the major disappointment for me out of the three ‘Mars movies’ of that 2000-2001 period, perhaps because I was expecting too much from De Palma. The Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Carrie Anne-Moss starring Red Planet is perhaps the most ‘successful’ and ‘serious’ sci-fi film (though more forgettable for that), and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars is the much sillier, pulpy action horror one (ghosts turn Mars colonists into Marilyn Manson-types), but succeeds wonderfully because of that ‘Rio Bravo/Assault on Precinct 13 on Mars’ updating of Carpenter’s well honed siege picture structure. And it also has a fantastic Russian dolled flashback structure to it.

    I would highly recommend Redacted though – I think that is De Palma’s best film of the 2000s (though I have not yet watched Femme Fatale, which also gets a lot of praise). It is the best of the Iraq war films and really deals with the ‘new media’ fragmented landscape of internet videos, skype conversations and ‘alternative news sources’ long before many other films cottoned on to it (its contemporary nature also means that it also works now as a kind of timecapsule of a pre-Twitter and Facebook internet landscape)

    I also like thinking of Redacted as De Palma’s update of Casualties of War. The most damning aspect of it all is that for all of the technological advances in news and combat techniques, it does not change the way that civilians are still caught in the middle and are regularly abused in any conflict zone.

  6. James S Says:

    IIRC this was Cahiers Du Cinema’s film of the year for 2000. Were they making a statement or was this a sincere gesture of love?

    Also as far as I know, this is the first major movie to be adapted from a theme park attraction. An irredeemable genre IMHO

    The opening sequence is very DePalma’s Bonfire, in the sense of ‘When in doubt, do a big long-take at a party. Who cares what anyone is saying? Watch my camera swing.”

    I remember seeing this film many, many years ago and (SPOILER) when Don Cheadle suddenly turns up, and it turns out he’s been living on Mars, alone, for over a year. I was struck by how that was a FAR more interesting story of survival & hope, than the one were being told and someone should make that movie. Now I’m not saying the writer of The Martian waited until I was asleep, hacked out my brains and stole my ideas, but can you think of a more feasible explanation?

  7. De Palma himself says Redacted is just the same story as Casualties of War. I heard somewhere that the film’s depiction of social media wasn’t convincing, but I’ll have to see for myself. Plus, with the passage of time, it’ll be less obvious.

    Femme Fatale is De Palma’s answer to Kiewslowski, and is exactly as nuts as that makes it sound. It’s one of his more adorable films.

    Curiously, The Fury is one he’s less passionate about, because he didn’t write it or develop the script.

  8. Hearing James S making the comment about party scenes in De Palma films (which I agree with on the opening of Mission To Mars, though I find the video from Earth moment cheesier!), that reminds me that Redacted’s best scene is a ‘coming home’ party.

  9. De Palma does love a party — in Edinburgh he got quite frisky, “playfully” spanking a prominent female film producer.

    I hadn’t realised Mission to Mars was a theme-park ride. It doesn’t look like a very thrilling one…

  10. bensondonald Says:

    Yes, it was kind of stodgy. You sat in a circular theater with big round screens in the ceiling and floor to provide front and rear views, plus big wall monitors showing remote transmissions and such. The best detail was the seats: They’d vibrate during blast off; fold up slightly to simulate g-force; and inflate to suggest “slight weightlessness”. Also, the pre-show featured a “mission control” where a robotic scientist lectured you.

    It originated in 1955 as Flight to the Moon, extremely low-tech (the seats were just seats) but a fun novelty. Herewith a fan documentary. Near the beginning it has a pretty complete approximation of the original moon version. Mission to Mars was essentially an immersive education film. While the original moon flight teased you with “ruins” on the dark side of the moon, Mission to Mars was Scientifically Correct.

  11. The movie seems to anticiate not only The Martian (thanks, James) but also Prometheus (the face on Mars). Ridley should pay or employ Grumpy Brian.

    I love cosmic zooms, so I would have enjoyed that ride!

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