Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Brian De Palma: Mission to Mars

Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars is the film you'd least expect from the maker of gory, cynical deconstruction who delighted in adhering to genre tropes as much as he did tearing them apart. A PG-rated space adventure released by Disney, Mission to Mars looks on its face like the ultimate sellout move, an embrace of everything De Palma hated now that he could be trusted to make a profit off his work. Certainly critics and audiences found it easy to go with their gut; the film eked out a box office so thinly above the budget it likely falls within the margin of error, and it received scathing reviews from professionals and amateurs alike.

But I see a remarkable film, one that puts all of De Palma's generic immersion and aesthetic strength to use at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Here is a film so unabashedly optimistic that De Palma can open on a barbecue with red, white, and blue colors used without a drop of irony, no mean feat for man who loves his American flags huge and imperialistic. And even if one wants to play the usual simplistic game of "Who is De Palma ripping off today?" the closest you'll get is Star Wars by way of 2001. Considering that those two films stand at polar ends to each other, suggesting De Palma is just playing the plagiarist holds even less water than it always has.

That barbecue is a private party on the eve of the titular mission, as American and Russian astronauts celebrate with their families and joke with their colleagues. De Palma establishes the basic character relations through pure exposition, but there's a giddiness on the faces of Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen and the rest that gives the stiff lines a jubilant quality. Even when Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), the former pilot of the mission taken off assignment when his wife died, arrives, the somber tone still carries flecks of idealism and camaraderie. Cheadle's earnest condolences and reassurances cannot fully overcome how staid the dialogue is, but the look of unendurable pain on Sinise's face, an agony that simmers below his sunken eyes even—especially—when he's smiling ensures that even this trudging moment passes quickly.

But soon the action takes off, De Palma cutting to the first ship's arrival on Mars and their study of the terrain for possible colonization. Orange tinting turns the rocky landscape into a convincing duplicate of Mars, and De Palma uses his widescreen to communicate a sense of loneliness and building unease in these scenes. He also sets up the first of many tricks of perspective, pulling back from the shot of an automated rover on the surface to see its larger, human-carrying counterpart drive past and readjust the scale. Later, in space, a camera swirls outward from four astronauts floating above a flattened atmosphere to likewise reveal the true vastness of the scenario.

Yet these dwarfing visual corrections of perspective belie the intimate nature of the film itself, especially after a mysterious event destroys most of the first crew sent to Mars and prompts the other cluster of characters to fly to Luke Graham's (Cheadle) rescue. De Palma slyly cuts away from Mars just as it starts to resemble a De Palma film, with man's arrogant quest to conquer cut brutally short by a mysterious, unexplained force. By realigning with the second crew, who insist that Jim flies them despite washing out of the program, De Palma moves away from suspense and potential commentary to focus on the struggles and hopes of the team that wants to save Graham but also has six months of travel to kill.

To fill the time, De Palma stages the most joyous, effervescent shots of his career. His camera floats gracefully through space, exuberantly capturing feelings of zero gravity and also communicating an ebullient whimsy wholly absent of the director's usual sense of irony. Giddy to the point of shamelessness, these scenes recast the clinical tone of Kubrick's movement through advanced space stations as pure ecstasy. For Kubrick, the scientifically plausible technology he posited signified man's complete surrender to technology, placing man in an environment where he would literally die without his inventions helping him. But for the Romantic side of De Palma, the ability to explore space gives us the infinity to explore and the ability to leave behind troubles, or at least some of them.

In the film's finest scene, Woody (Robbins), who earlier protested the idea of dance lessons with Terri (Nielsen), puts on Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away" and twirls in zero-gravity with his wife. It's such a happy moment that everyone on-board forgets the mission and watches the two go. De Palma revels in the romance, but he also adds a tinge of sadness when Jim arrives. Sinise plays his part beautifully here, looking on with a smile that does not fade but slowly cools as he thinks of his own wife and how it so easily could have been he and Maggie dancing. It's a quiet, heartbreaking cutaway that displays De Palma's pained humanism stripped of the usual sarcasm or at least doom. That the Mars mission pairs husband and wife in the first place is itself revealing of the director's emotional approach here: in this idealized future, even scientists recognize the need for human comfort and warmth in space and want their mission leaders to be emotionally level. They just recognize that humans are emotionally level when they are happy, not clinically neutral.

All of this is not to say that Mission to Mars contains none of De Palma's darker impulses. But even they are timed to be affecting, not sinister. Consider the scene of Graham's team exploring the aberration in a Martian mountain intercut with the broadcast he and the crew recorded earlier to send back to the space station over Earth. That transmission reaches and plays for the astronauts there just as Graham and co. reach the site, and the cheeriness of the transmission (in which the crew on Mars joke and sing "Happy Birthday" to Jim) conflicts with the mounting suspense of the electronic warbling and gathering wind on Mars. The crosscutting only exacerbates the tension by making the thought of anything happening to these characters (who are all so thinly defined you know few, if any, will survive) unpleasant instead of just expected.

There's also the devastating sequence of the four members of the second mission crew forced to abandon their craft after micrometeorites lead to an engine explosion. As Woody aims for a refueling module, he secures a tether but carries too much momentum to stop, flying outside the range of his friends. Unwilling to watch her husband die, Terri cuts her own tether in a doomed attempt to rescue him, leading Woody to take drastic measures to prevent her from killing herself. His act of self-sacrifice is poignant and poetic, using tense setups—Woody propelling himself too fast, the line on the tether gun reaching its end just before it can reach him—to reach a sorrowful conclusion.

On Mars, the remaining crew reunites with a half-mad Graham, and as they wonder what it is about Mars' atmosphere that might have caused this, Jim points out that he watched his friends die and spent six months as the only man on a planet. Or is he? The storm that destroyed Graham's mission was clearly controlled, and one can only expect aliens to show up at some point. What makes Mission to Mars remarkable is how it (literally) relates those aliens to us. An earlier scene establishes a joke by having Phil (Jerry O'Connell) arrange M&Ms in zero gravity to form a DNA double-helix of what he calls his "ideal woman." Jim reaches out and nabs a few candies, asking Phil what the strand is now. "A frog?" Phil guesses after briefly studying the altered base pairs.

Amusing at that scene is, it also establishes the key theme of De Palma's film, that all life is linked to the same fundamental building blocks, with only the tiniest variations separating vastly different species. The Martians only take this idea to its endpoint, providing an explanation for life on Earth that not only connects all creatures through the huge chunks of DNA they share but does the same for life in the great beyond. For a Disney film that works primarily as an optimistic space adventure, Mission to Mars strikingly reminded me of Terrence Malick's recent The Tree of Life, another film that used a universal canvas and the scientific conclusions of evolution to posit a spiritual connection linking all life.

This is a far cry from De Palma's usual view of humanity, where even his most loving portrayals show characters who are isolated and cut off from the world. The closest he comes to acknowledging his usual forays into underworlds and monsters is a jokey retort from Phil when Terri waxes rhapsodic on the three percent of DNA that makes humanity its own species, the three percent that gave the world Einstein and Mozart. "And Jack the Ripper," chimes Phil. Nevertheless, in Mission to Mars, we are all one, and when Jim decides to leave his empty life behind to seek meaning even deeper into the cosmos, De Palma promises to make him see just how vast the universal web of life is. It may not be De Palma's best film, but Mission to Mars is the most rapturous and hopeful of his stylistic exercises, and one of the finest displays of the love he has under all his cynicism.


  1. Thanks you for defending this great film. Always loved it. The suspense space scene at the middle and the ending are awesome. Once while watching it, my roommate who could not see the screen, asked, "What are you watching, an opera"? Indeed.

  2. I pretty much tried to block this movie from my mind, but you mention the scenes I remember ... although I think I thought the dancing scene was a neat idea that was corny and that the tether sequence was on its way to being gripping until it became goofy. But, seriously, I might be wrong. I might have loved those scenes and detested most of the rest.

    I also recall the end of the picture taking a really long time to go absolutely nowhere interesting.

    You've approached the film from the one angle in which I think it can be enjoyed: as a De Palma outlier.

    I'd love to be more substantive in this comment but, again, I tried to block it out. (And I only saw this two years ago.)

  3. Hey Jake. Great angle on the review of this film. We saw it when it first came out, and since we've been watching some Brian's films, we'll keep your post in mind when revisiting it. Thanks for the post and keep blogging!