The hype on "Mission to Mars" is that the outer-space story is a cross between the patriotic bravado of "Apollo 13" and the brainy, technologically astute ponderings of "2001."
Here's another view: Brian De Palma, making his first landing on science-fiction terrain, has matched the worst new-age excesses of "Contact" with the wacky aliens-are-everywhere musings of late-night radio host Art Bell and melodramatic scripting better suited to daytime television.
De Palma, the formerly Hitchcock-obsessed director who scored a box-office bonanza with 1996's "Mission: Impossible," certainly didn't stint on production values. The hardware is shiny and realistic-looking, at least to a casual observer, and veteran cinematographer Stephen Burum (a De Palma regular) has aptly captured the graceful motion of various vehicles careening through the heavens. The special-effects sequences, including one at a sort of interstellar planetarium, are particularly inspired.
With those resources, and solid actors, too, it's disappointing that the filmmaker didn't place greater emphasis on storytelling or character development. "Mission to Mars," co-penned by the team responsible for such stinkers as Wild Wild West and "Executive Decision," is set in 2020, and Luc Goddard (Don Cheadle) is the honoree at a celebration for his imminent departure on a trip to the red planet.
Fellow NASA astronauts Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell) and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) are there, at a Texas backyard barbecue, to wish Goddard a hail and hearty farewell, and the scene is reminiscent of similar passages in "Apollo 13" and "The Right Stuff." It's a melancholy toast for McConnell: He had been scheduled to take the mission, along with his wife Maggie (Kim Delaney), until she was afflicted with a terminal illness and her husband decided to drop out of the program.
Flash-forward 13 months later, and Goddard and his crew are busy collecting data and exploring the surface of Mars. Their extended field trip is interrupted thanks to an unexpected encounter with a strange energy force, and Blake, his astronaut wife (Connie Nielsen) and Ohlmyer embark on a rescue mission. It's partly fun and partly serious, as the four scramble to repair leaks.
Why would a highly trained astronaut not take a few seconds to attach his helmet when the oxygen level begins to drop dangerously? To ratchet up the thrills, of course. What follows is at times excruciating and ultimately silly and overblown. The conclusion references the old the-aliens-were-here-first philosophy espoused in "Chariots of the Gods" and those presentations on evolution most of us already sat through in science classes. And that's not a good thing.