Mission to Mars is a breathtakingly beautiful film visually. The music, while somewhat misleading at times, is good at supporting the eerie and somewhat surreal nature of many parts of the film. The cast does an admirable job of a script that could have been written to make more sense, but gets the job done in the end. Individual, each actor & actress in the film make their characters memorable and believable, but the script does call for them to enact some of our best-loved stereotypes. Read on, oh-intrepid review seeker.
As I get older, I begin to see the unspoken subtext within films. Fortunately, the subtext in this new film from Buena Vista is one I approve of. But more of that later. The film is truly a tale for the 90's, even though it was released in 2000. As was observed to me, there was a bit too much set-up, and not enough of the "good stuff" at the end. The film covers the first manned space-flight to the red planet, upon which Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) is commander. Mars 1 runs afoul of some type of natural disaster, and must be rescued by a second mission. Mars II is commanded by Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), with Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), her husband Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell).
About 70% of the film is the second mission en-route, with 20% of the film being the character exposition in the beginning and the first Mars mission, leaving only 10% for resolution and explanation at the end. The film does redeem itself in the end, but only barely, since the audience is left with somewhat of a sense of "That's it?!?" due to the shortness of the resolution. The special effects and music combine to create an odd combination of plot/visual situations with a surreal sense of security which deflates much of the innate tension of the scenes.
Sinise does a very good job in his role as Jim McConnell, the pilot who was to have gone on Mars I with his wife, but his wife's untimely illness forced him to drop out of the program entirely. After her death (minor plot point, I assure you), he never quite recovered. Sinise has played many characters with attitudinal tendencies before (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13), but this one requires more emotion on his part, since it's a deep sadness and a sense of loss that permeates his characterization of McConnell. Likewise, Don Cheadle is fabulous as Luke Graham, the commander of Mars I. Honorable mention goes to Jerry O'Connell for his role as Phil Ohlmyer. O'Connell has been a favorite since Stand By Me and the television series Sliders, but this seems to be his coming-of-age film. In this role, he has reached his on-screen maturity and become a fine leading man, capable of leaving the gum-chewing, stereotyped heroic action lead behind. It was enjoyable to watch him find himself in this film.
The subtext of this film is fascinating. It is rated PG, which will allow many children to see the film. Set in 2020, this film extols (without preaching) the virtue of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), showing them to be the ones taking us into the brave new future of other planets and further exploration. Consider: The film is set 20 years in the future. With its rating, and the fact that many children will see this film and perhaps re-learn the fascination my generation had with space travel, perhaps this film is a vehicle (no pun intended) to recruit a new corps of astronauts. Maybe yes, maybe no, could be completely unintentional, but it may have the same effect regardless. Fortunately, once you leave the planet, nations become less important, so perhaps in NASA lie the seeds for a world government. Or maybe I've just seen too many Star Trek episodes. The jury is still out.
I give this film a B. Overall, this film is worth seeing just for the ideas it will generate, but don't expect any Academy Award performances. The only Oscar this film will receive will probably go to Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the creators of the films special effects.