Brian De Palma's "Mission to Mars", scorned by critics upon its release
in early 2000, is not deserving of so. It has its flaws, yes, and it
certainly can be overbearing at times, but I'd take a filmmaker who
goes over the top any day over a filmmaker who doesn't give a damn.
Loosely based on the Disney Tomorrowland attraction, De Palma utilizes his crew to their fullest extent, specifically his cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and composer Ennio Morricone, and delivers an exciting action/adventure with the fundamentals of true science fiction. But De Palma, always the mischievous filmmaker, toys with his audience, both fulfilling and averting genre conventions to them. Even the film's opening act where - some thing - causes a team of astronauts to go on a rescue mission to the Red Planet, completely seems out of place, but knowing De Palma, this is exactly what he wants.
An addition to the boom of space exploration movies following the success of "Apollo 13", De Palma's film doesn't concern itself with the story so much so as how De Palma wants he audience to feel the story. De Palma and Burum dance their way to elaborate, hypnotic camera movements while the great movie maestro Ennio Morricone provides the symphony for said dance. The camera weaves through the interiors of the spaceships every which way it can, and on the surface of the Red Planet it exudes a terrific sense of wonder and mystery, something akin to the golden years of science fiction.
Some of the dialog is hokey and some moments admittedly goofy, but again, this also could be a throwback to the Golden sci-fi era, and besides, De Palma wastes no time on those trivial script moments. He is more of an artist than a storyteller, but there is a story being told here, and the journey is indeed mesmerizing and a lot of fun to watch. De Palma and the producers also made the right choice in picking genuine talent for the characters and not the superstar of today.
And then there are the effects. Both practical and computer-generated are put to heavy use here, and the results are nothing short of spectacular, even by today's standards. (OK, well maybe not a sequence near the end). It can really be seen for itself, that actual imagination and talent went into the production design of the film, even though it clearly evolved from Kubrick's Odyssey. The effects do not just serve as pretty eye candy, De Palma utilizes them to bring out an awesome exhilaration and sense of wonder from the audience. Again, playing with them, like a piano.
What I think really divided audiences and critics alike was the climactic act of the film, which some would consider it as "Space Odyssey"-lite. I do not find that an insult to Kubrick, rather I find it complementary that, in today's science fiction films that results in George Lucas mentality, that here is a director that pays the perfect tribute to both the greatest science fiction film of all time, as well as its creator.
Ultimately, "Mission to Mars" is a brave and severely underrated blockbuster that, not only is it exciting and hypnotic to watch, but leaves so much to the imagination long after the main story is finished. This is delicious eye candy high on nutrition. Before you set your kids on "2001: A Space Odyssey", let them see this first.
De Palma is a post-modern filmmaker, a director who shows his love of movies by making other movies (especially his love of Hitchcock in many of his earlier films like "Blow Out", "Sisters" and "Body Double"), and allows film fans to play games with him by watching them. The main difference from other filmmakers who do the same than De Palma, is that he genuinely exudes his own playful style to the film he works on, no matter a low budget art-house indie, or a big-budget studio blockbuster. If De Palma decides to return to big-budget filmmaking (as of this writing, it is his last studio picture) I would really love to see what this American auteur can come up next.
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