Friday, July 31, 2020

Drifting Through Eternity

Well, we didn’t know this was going to be the future. Stuck like this, away from the people we’ve known and care about. But even now they stay with us as we close our eyes, wishing we were back with them. It’s the naiveté of youth, I suppose, the dream that you grow up and as the future appears the world will grow with you, eventually turning things into that life one dreams of. But the real future, the one we’re going to get, is always closer than we think and those people just get further away. So by the time we actually get there, it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s when we realize there’s no one else around.

Brian De Palma’s 2000 film MISSION TO MARS is set in what was then the future. But revisiting this film during its 20th anniversary is not simply about addressing when it opened but how it actually begins in the year 2020, on June 9th to be exact although the preciseness of the date serves little purpose. It’s still a pretty familiar looking future except that people appear to be drinking boxed beer at a crowded barbecue which, boxed beer aside, hasn’t been happening or at least it shouldn’t—I was going to add that we’re also not going to Mars anytime soon but there’s actually a mission happening, go figure, even if there won’t be any humans onboard. Living in this actual time as we are, if you call this living, we already know that the 2020 of this film has little to do with the reality we currently know even if the film doesn’t spend much time on Earth. My main recollections of seeing this film opening night way back in March of that year at the El Capitan on Hollywood Blvd. are that the packed house violently booed when the end credits rolled and someone threw what looked like a Snapple bottle at the screen. But time changes things. For one, this is a film where a character gets marooned all alone and who the hell knew back then that the very idea of isolation would turn out to have the most to do with what life in 2020 really is. Like many films that have been loudly rejected on opening night, MISSION TO MARS is more interesting than that initial response indicated and even though it does still have more than a few issues, it’s a film striving to be about hope and connection in a way that makes me think a little more fondly about it these days. There’s a lot to figure out right now about the way things are going and even if there aren’t any real answers in the film I’m watching, there’s always the dream that maybe something can still be found there.

As the first ever crew on the surface of Mars explores the red planet, they discover the possibility of water which would allow for earth colonization. But when they try to investigate, the entire team except for Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) is wiped out by a mysterious vortex of massive size leaving the lone astronaut remaining stranded there. When news of this reaches the World Space Station via a message that indicates Luke is still alive, plans for the next ship for Mars are changed to turn it into a rescue mission which will include Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), wife Terri (Connie Nielsen), Phil Ohlmeyer (Jerry O’Connell) and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), who gave up his own shot at commanding Mars One when his wife Maggie (Kim Delaney) fell ill and soon died. But months later when their ship begins to orbit Mars things immediately don’t go as planned and once the team reaches the ground to search for Luke, they soon discover the existence of a massive stone face which may lead to the answer of what sort of life once existed on that planet and what may have really happened to it.

For one thing, it’s definitely the second best Brian De Palma film with the word “Mission” in the title but this is of minor importance. Even after all this time MISSION TO MARS is still a tough one to figure out, a film which on the surface doesn’t seem to be anything other than a showcase for spectacular digital effects but somewhere deep down feels like it has other goals in mind that it hasn’t entirely worked out. Maybe it wants to be more of an interior journey into outer space but even with several big names in the cast the characters are never interesting enough to warrant this approach so what’s left becomes the focus on those effects and the way De Palma builds his own visual methods around them. Right from the very first moment as the title flashes onscreen a rocket blasts off, only to be revealed as a toy in a suburban backyard giving the impression the film wants to play with our expectations, finding a way to turn kid stuff into the adult regret of lost dreams and back again, to understand what the dream in those toys meant in the first place. It’s an idea that doesn’t feel entirely formed and the film is forced to pay more attention to all that hardware while still looking for ways around all the expected tropes, like how in place of the expected spectacular launch sequence is a simple transition to the surface of Mars done with a cut from a playful footprint in a backyard on Earth. This is an attempt at hard science fiction which at times seems more interested in finding unexpected ways to tell the story rather than acclimating us to the drama at hand and plays at such a distance that it’s a little too easy to check out early on. There’s no mission control populated with familiar character actors, no cutaways to worried loved ones back home, no bogus conflict between the astronauts played by big names and even an early sequence involving cross cutting that plays with notions of time within the narrative for reasons that still seem a little hazy.

A few plot points, like how Cheadle’s command will presumably be joined at a later date by Mars II commanded by Robbins, seem vague in the way they’re casually discussed but I’m not sure it matters and I’m not sure the director really cares about making such generalities clear. Complicated exposition gets doled out in a way that hasn’t taken into account what anyone watching the film doesn’t know so not enough of it registers, lost to whatever De Palma is actually interested in focusing on. Even when the film opens with one of his patented endless Steadicam shots it’s not about the technology surrounding a Mars launch but the simple act of the astronauts socializing at a farewell barbecue, giving us more info about the relationships than the actual mission which is fine but the mundane setting doesn’t seem to warrant such a complex visual approach (which features a cut partway through as if a decision was made in editing to rush things along) and it also makes the film feel unexpectedly small with the interactions never registering all that much as the camera swirls around them. There’s so little drama in the friendships of the main characters which means right from the start we’re facing a Brian De Palma film where everyone gets along, no ominous foreshadowing in the air, so earnest that the scenes barely seem about anything.

The way the writing credits read (screenplay by Jim Thomas and John Thomas & Graham Yost, story by Lowell Cannon & Jim Thomas and John Thomas) along with the very nature of the project (presumably inspired by the Disneyland ride that closed back in ’92 but it has the Touchstone Pictures logo) one imagines many, many drafts of various scripts written but the story still feels either not quite smoothed over or maybe had whole sections deleted for whatever reason. One major plot point is even relayed via news delivered remotely at another location and there’s something to be said about how the film seems more interested in dwelling for a long moment on the sight of Armin Mueller-Stahl silently drinking a cup of coffee than the spectacular landing we didn’t get to see. But the question is are there really plot points to this film or just several specific events leading up to the final revelation. So much of what appeals about films directed by Brian De Palma more than the necessities of story structure is his portrayal of the madness that surrounds the main characters as they try to make sense of this increasingly insane world while the plot happens around them. The characters in this film are all good and pure, which makes sense since they’re astronauts, but the earnestness doesn’t feel all that fleshed out as if he doesn’t quite know how to make it ever seem genuine. They can each be described simply via who means the most to them, nothing more; Woody and Terri are the happy couple, Jim is sad because his wife died, Luke misses his son back on Earth and Phil is the joker who constructs the DNA of his dream woman using M&M’s in zero gravity. There’s no real conflict between the characters at all beyond how to address whatever any given immediate issue might be, saying things like “Let’s work the problem” as they get to it, all of them so idealized as heroes that there isn’t much else to them beyond the perfection. These are the types who normally get sacrificed, if not totally destroyed, in the cruel world of De Palma films so maybe in being forced to portray people without flaws it removes all the fun and doesn’t replace it with anything particularly interesting.

This has never been a director known for showing much interest in healthy relationships between men and women (maybe with the exception of Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness and Patricia Clarkson as “Ness’ Wife” in THE UNTOUCHABLES) which makes it feel like there’s not much to portray here beyond the simple idealization. Tim Robins and Connie Nielsen are played as being totally devoted to each other, such a mirror image of Gary Sinise and his late wife played in flashback by Kim Delaney that it almost feels a little confusing as if husband-wife missions have somehow become a NASA requirement in the future. But even if the perfection plays like a neon sign that something bad has to happen, this is still a rare Brian De Palma film with next to no cynicism, no irony or real sense of the fates conspiring against all the goodness in the universe. Even when a sacrifice has to be made, even when an American flag is planted upon arrival at the new planet, it seems to insist on holding onto some kind of optimism so the movie is never embarrassed by its own inherent dorkiness coming out of the science fiction technobabble or how much these people love each other as if it wants to actually believe in this dream of everything being ok.

In spite of what feels like his reputation as a director only interested in the camera, dialogue does matter in De Palma films but in a very musical sense so if the words and images don’t go together then there’s no way for it all to flow. Here it feels like a lack of drama coming out of all that vaguely specified scientific exposition and declarations of friendship, some of which is at least partly necessary but too often gets me to zone out so not enough of it registers and even some of the big statements in the dialogue that are clear don’t seem to matter beyond the moment they’re spoken. In some ways the framing of how people are placed together in a given shot becomes what matters more than the words, as if all the main audio were shut off the film would make about as much sense as it does now. But the narrative by itself remains a little too thin, a novella slotted into what needs to feel epic so clocking in at a fairly brisk 113 minutes, which includes a lengthy end crawl, the film always moves but sometimes a little too quickly from one incident to another with occasional fades to black to divide each section that play a little as an excuse for leaving out bits of connective tissue. But it’s not the amount of plot that matters as much as the pacing which gives the feeling that the movie could use more breathing room, more moments of the characters simply getting lost in the majesty of it all and maybe even one or two scenes of non-cryptic exposition to really clarify things. The few moments the film does dwell on the Mars landscape feel right for the dissonant alien feel particularly when it pauses to reveal the scale of the massive vortex and as always De Palma, with editor Paul Hirsch (whose work with the director goes all the way back to HI, MOM!; to date, this is their last film together), knows how to maneuver his pieces into place but there’s an elegance missing, no way to enjoy the small touches in between the big moments which gives the pacing a stop-start quality. The purest De Palma films often flow beautifully from shot to shot with grace notes that could only come from this director but maybe with all this reliance on technology, effects and a plot which doesn’t feel entirely formed that just can’t happen as much as it should. Even when there’s a sense that it wants to linger within the imagery a little more to get lost in the vastness of space the film resists, maybe to avoid playing as too similar to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or maybe just a desire to simply keep things moving.

It’s the score by the great Ennio Morricone (RIP) that gives the film much of the soul it does have, while maybe overreaching in assuming any emotional connection we have to these characters. It’s a little ONCE UPON A TIME IN SPACE in the way it searches for the emotion found through the discovery in a different way than the usual John Williams majesty and the overriding emotion that it projects feels like it’s about yearning so the film becomes about yearning as well, the hope of what can possibly be found out there supplanted with suspense music that features a prominent haunted house organ underscoring the danger always nearby. These emotional touches lend a humanity to the thinly drawn characters, a reminder of how Morricone never scored simple plot beats and even when working on undeniably trashy films he always went beyond simple emotion and beauty into examining the very idea of how the characters are affected by Fate. His music always played like it was what he responded to in a film deep down in his soul, using the themes he created to infuse the religion that is Cinema and transform it into something greater. What he brought to MISSION TO MARS is almost too noticeable at times and in some ways the old-fashioned quality clashes with the futuristic setting but it doesn’t hold back in its quest to provide a clarity to the answers that are beyond anything one could imagine and in helping us begin to actually understand those emotions maybe that’s as close as we’re ever going to get.

But to bring up music that has nothing to do with Morricone, the zero gravity sequence with Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” playing as the Mars II centrifuge spins serves as a break from those more stately moments. It’s the sort of long take we want from this film, done with just the right sense of the old De Palma funkiness that lets him play with the three-dimensional quality to bring something extra to the Kubrick nature of the moment as if pausing the movie just for the sheer pleasure of doing it. The staging during moments like this is impeccable in the way only he knows how to do but the film still feels like it’s missing a human connection between those shots. De Palma’s visual approach over the decades has often been about pure emotion, not logic, which is when his films work best but this one has to spend time on the science of all that hardware whether it interests him or not and the balance feels lost more than it should. At times those darkly comic touches come through, particularly during the nastiest death early on that has just the right kick, but too often it doesn’t feel like there’s enough inspiration to the way scenes are staged; an early conversation between two people is shot with simple, dull over-the-shoulder angles and one later moment even pulls out the old visual trick of a character suddenly revealed to be standing behind someone else in the immediate foreground likely cribbed from Argento. It was also used in RAISING CAIN and FEMME FATALE but the giallo-styled frisson of the moment here feels strangely timed wrong as if the gimmick just didn’t fit the scene, no matter how the staging was adjusted and it becomes another one of those occasional touches that don’t quite belong.

The effects driven plot points that lie within the sometimes iffy, circa-2000 CGI have a largely ‘shit happens, then more shit happens’ approach to the storytelling which at times feels too mechanical, things going wrong before it’s been made clear what’s supposed to go right. But during the big midpoint setpiece when Mars II has to be abandoned as it attempts to enter orbit and the disaster which follows this all comes alive, finding the balance between the technology and what the director knows how to do. Shot by shot it’s easily the purest De Palma sequence of the entire film, building to a literal cosmic joke (plus answering why one of the presumed leads gets an “and” billing in the credits), and the whole sequence even feels more like a dream than anything else in the film in showing the helplessness of trying to reach something that is so close yet so far and there’s not a thing you can do about it. And in many ways the scene is not about trying to reach Mars at all but a reminder of how little power love has in the grand scheme of things even as you hold onto it as tight as you can, desperately looking for the right answer when everything else is falling away and if only this could have been fleshed out more. In our real 2020 it feels like loneliness is unavoidable but this is a film that wants to reject that through the pure love it portrays and even the way Don Cheadle compares the union he creates with the plant life on Mars to a marriage, that companion who gives you oxygen. And when they’re gone you gasp for air, wondering how to breathe. Deep down the movie wants to find a way to fight through that loneliness, even in the way Mars and Earth ultimately depend on each other, with the planet that could rightly be called the younger sibling arriving in search of all the answers to be found.

The year it was released, the main competition for MISSION TO MARS was the Val Kilmer-starring RED PLANET, a more straightforward genre piece (ok at best) which wound up not opening until November and didn’t do as much business but then again neither one could really be called a box office success. This film is definitely the more ambitious of the two even if what finally gets revealed makes me wonder how much was cribbed from whatever science fiction novels by Clarke or Asimov or whoever that I never got around to when I was reading this stuff in my pre-teen years. The climax makes sure to spell everything out as clear as possible, no Kubrick ambiguity here and all presented in the style of a three dimensional IMAX museum film complete with narration that the film would have been better off without (or, to bring up a movie that came out over a decade later, maybe done more in the style of TREE OF LIFE) to make sure everyone in the audience gets it but of course that was never going to happen. Then again, it took several viewings for me to get a handle on another plot point involving the key to establishing communication with life on the planet, again zoning out during more of that exposition, so what do I know. The action taken by Sinise to embrace his destiny after learning the truth is also somewhat reminiscent of the denouement of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, another film with considerable flaws but its own charms that always makes me want to try to accept the film a little more. It may seem strange to have Kim Delaney receive prominent billing for playing Sinise’s wife in such a tiny part, seen more or less entirely in flashback, but she does get the big speech seen on an old video, to say that the answers we’re looking for are not about chaos but connection, how life reaches out for life and accepting that idea can allow us to finally move forward. The moment seems deliberately tossed off but it is the main verbal expression of the film’s theme along with a simple but emotional expression of thanks between two people at the end that echoes an identical beat in the closing moments of THE UNTOUCHABLES.

In some ways the film plays like a true oddity now, a giant effects movie from a major studio without action, adventure or any sort of real antagonist and the thing that unlocks the mystery in the end comes from working out an equation. Whether because of the reliance on the visuals, the thinly drawn characters or how tight a timeframe so much of it takes place in, the desired emotional payoff at the end doesn’t really happen and yet within all the awkwardness is an optimistic sweetness about the potential of humanity that goes beyond the usual STAR TREK speechifying to make me want to defend it a little more. Part of that is because of touches that can be found during certain random moments that really feel like they come from the director, how he seems to want to express certain feelings through those long unbroken takes, split diopter shots to connect the characters and De Palma zooms that only he could be responsible for which express more humanity all these years later than the overwhelming CGI the film chooses to dwell on. And in the bookending final image really does transform the stuff of children into a realization of what can really be out there for the adult willing to strive for it. It takes us away from the loneliness once and for all while keeping the spirit of that close to be willing to go on to the next part of the adventure. And, hopefully, find a way to continue on.

All that hardware becomes a reminder that there are many wonderful performances in Brian De Palma films it’s just that, Sean Connery aside, they’re more the kind that Pauline Kael raved about than the sort of thing the Academy recognizes. So while this is a film with solid actors doing largely solid work when they can make the dialogue register, I can’t help but shake the feeling that they did this for a chance to be in a big Brian De Palma film more than anything but every now and then there’s a looseness to moments during those long takes that don’t feel entirely scripted which lets a little bit of humanity poke through. Gary Sinise finds the sad calmness in what he does as if so much of his arc has to be played out through silence and, in a way, he’s the only one who seems to be working out all those complex problems in his head. Much of the time Don Cheadle feels like he doesn’t have any real character to play at all but he also gets the one moment of true emotion in the film near the end, which plays as weirdly genuine while Connie Nielsen and Tim Robbins each project intelligence but little registers beyond a basic sense of decency. Armin Mueller-Stahl is unbilled and an odd choice for his character actor-authority figure reeling off exposition that we probably need to retain but the words never seem vivid enough. Maybe this part should have been played by more of an extrovert (now I’m picturing Dennis Franz in space) but maybe it’s an issue with the entire film that it needed to find a way for the performances to really matter even with all those effects, to find a way to make the words pop in a way that would engage with all the majesty around them and then the ending would have really paid off.

The soundtrack album featuring the Ennio Morricone score is a somewhat hodgepodge of a listening experience with one track running just over thirteen minutes but the final piece, titled “All the Friends”, is a quiet, gentle rumination that feels like what the film was really trying to contemplate. Or maybe it’s the film that I imagine is trying to poke through. The technology of the future as presented in MISSION TO MARS ultimately seems incidental but what it wants to say, especially via the ANNIE HALL-styled montage at the very end, is that what matters is the people we’ve known, the experiences we’ve had, the ones we’ve loved. I’m not sure if other composers would have latched on to this idea to such an extent which is what always seemed to give such power to the scores Morricone wrote. We can go as far as we want to in this universe, and hopefully we will, but it’s the people you’ve known that mattered and will continue to. It’s a nice idea, one that I wish really clicked in this film, and it’s what I keep reminding myself during the actual year 2020 as I don’t see any of those people, not really. It’s like what we see when we close our eyes, the flashes of our lives, the people we care about and wish were here, is what 2020 is all about. Because so much hurts right now, there’s so much emptiness without them. Admittedly, part of all this is all about finding a way to somehow understand a film made by a director whose body of work means a great deal to me. Maybe it’s a search for an emotional connection that says more about me right now than what can be really be found but there’s always the hope that the answer will present itself. Anyway, it’s a nice dream to hold onto.

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