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Mission to Mars

Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell

(Touchstone; 2000)

The following review contains spoilers.


Manifest Density


From the Louisiana Purchase to the Mexican-American war, the history of the United States is punctuated often by federally sanctioned efforts to extend the country’s borders. Land-grabbing through diplomacy, trickery or outright violence, could stand almost on a par with baseball as the national pastime. During the 1960s, this American expansionism shifted focus from earthly territories to celestial ones. Despite being a cold, barren chunk of rock hundreds of thousands of miles away, the moon became prime real estate upon which to stake an American claim. To this end, Neil Armstrong was sent into space to stick a motionless U.S. flag into the surface of the moon.


Forty years later, though, the moon has proved to be “not enough” to satisfy this territorial restlessness, as the nation turns its sights to the red planet. Recent NASA efforts have sent probes, landers, and rovers to our celestial neighbor, albeit with varying levels of success. Still, the United States seems determined to stick another flag in the barren soil of this terra incognita. Enter Brian De Palma’s latest film, Mission to Mars.


The film takes place in the year 2020, chronicling the first manned Mission to Mars. While digging rocks and taking readings, the crew discovers a mysterious mountain. In the course of their investigations, the astronauts cause a Martian tornado that leaves only one survivor, Luke Graham (played by Don Cheadle), marooned and alone on the planet’s surface. Despite the protests of the curmudgeonly head of NASA, Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) organizes a rescue mission to go after Graham. Accompanying him are his wife, {mission specialist} Dr. Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), scientist Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell), and haunted co-pilot Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), who is still mourning the recent loss of his wife, who was also a fellow astronaut.


When they get to Mars, this second crew encounters a slightly insane Graham, as well as a secret locked inside the Martian mountain. This secret, of course, is no less than the origin of life on Earth. The remainder of the film, then, becomes an expensive exposition and development of this long lost knowledge — a huge secret explained with a huge budget. And yes, Mission to Mars is typical of costly science fiction films, in that it spends a lot of time impressing the audience with elaborate special effects. The Martian landscapes and spaceship scenes offer the very latest in eye candy technology, and De Palma and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum add a good deal of spinning, zero-gravity camera work in order to convey a realistic sense of movement and action in outer space.


A price must be paid, however, for such accomplished effects. The first example of this cost is the blatant product placement that has infiltrated so many blockbuster films. I left the film with a sudden craving to fill my Kawasaki motorcycle full of Penzoil motor oil while drinking a Dr. Pepper. So artless were these conspicuous plugs that many audience members could be heard scoffing at the screen. Mission to Mars is a clumsy reminder that the increasing trend of marketing synergy, aimed at converting audiences into test markets, can easily backfire if not handled with subtlety.


A second example of this price is endemic to far too many films looking to make up for their production costs in ticket and, later, video sales. One popular strategy is to develop a plot line imbued with an overabundance of flavorless sentimentality. Whether it’s the big-eyed baby in the park or the Golden Retriever puppy on Christmas morning, film after film seems bent on evoking collective, tear-choked “Ahhhs” from its audience. Mission to Mars has no shortage of these horribly contrived moments, culminating in a weeping Martian joining hands in a circle with humans around a holographic projection of Earth. Instead of the expected sighs, however, the audience reacted with incredulous laughter, not even beginning to fall for this tired and insulting emotional trickery. We can only pray that some studio executive will attend to the collective eye-rolling that this and other recent films have produced, and mend his/her ways.


While these problems affect many contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, Mission to Mars is also, and more specifically, tapping into a national history of, and a perceived proclivity for, conquest and expansion. Now that the United States has set foot on the moon, this film posits Mars as the next logical step in an interstellar incarnation of Manifest Destiny. The film’s opening sequence is set against the backdrop of the most color-coordinated picnic ever to be captured on film. Red, white, and blue dominate every article of clothing, every paper plate. Mission to Mars wants its audience to see the planet as the rocky New England coasts, Midwestern plains, and the Pacific beachheads of yesteryear, just waiting for a few brave, American souls to rush in, wave a flag, and reap the benefits.


The reward for such activity is the answer to a question that continues to trouble humanity (or at least the scientists, politicians, and artists whose careers are invested in such things): where did we come from? Mission to Mars shows us that even the most troubling puzzles can be solved with a good, old-fashioned American conquest. Whether by wagon or rocketship, the colonizing thrust of exploration into the unknown drives this film today as it drove those colonizers so many years ago. In the film’s conclusion (stop reading if you don’t want the ending spoiled), the Martian mountain is revealed to house a spaceship as well as a Martian who explains that it was these “aliens” who were responsible for seeding the Earth with the first germs of life. The Martian Other, then, is us, or becomes us. Mission to Mars shows that conquest is a natural part of human history. Just as Mars colonized the Earth with humans, humans (specifically Americans) return to re-colonize Mars and the cycle of conquest is complete. The film shows that the archaic myth of Manifest Destiny, a jingoistic construction used as an excuse for centuries of American expansion, is alive and well, not just in all Americans, but in all of humanity. Mission to Mars doesn’t just believe the myth, it implicates all of us in its dark history. By ignoring the line between exploration and exploitation, Mission to Mars becomes merely an exorbitant celebration of an ethos that best remains buried in the past.

Tobias Peterson served as PopMatters' Sport Editors and columnist (From the Cheap Seats). He holds an MA in English Literature (with a concentration in Cultural Studies) from George Mason University, where he studied representations of race in professional basketball.


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