Thursday, April 26, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.22: Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 93 (A)

Defending Brian De Palma’s 2000 film Mission to Mars to any degree is an uphill battle. Defending it passionately likely brings looks of incredulity. With a Metacritic score of 34 percent, the reviews range from lukewarm to scathing. The film flopped in theatres, and many De Palma fans regularly cite it as one of the director’s worst movies. The fact that one the film’s biggest fans is notorious contrarian and frequent troll Armond White doesn’t make matters easier. Yet Mission to Mars has a handful of passionate fans nonetheless- French film critics embraced the film (the Cahiers du cinema put it at #4 on their best of the year list), and put the film at #80 on their best of the decade list. There’s a number of people who are going to think I’ve gone nuts, and no doubt only a handful who will join the film’s tiny fan club, but screw it: Mission to Mars is one of Brian De Palma’s very best movies.

2020: Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) is an astronaut who’s dreamed of going to Mars his whole life, but his wife’s death took the passion out of him. His best friend, Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), will lead the first mission to mars instead, with their friend Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and his wife Terri (Connie Nielsen) following and Jim running the mission from NASA’s World Space Station.  When Jim receives a message from Luke stating that the rest of the team has been killed, he, Woody, Terri, and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell) set off on a rescue mission. But Luke found something fascinating on Mars- the possible origin of human life.

At first glance, Mission to Mars sounds utterly ridiculous. At second glance…it still sounds utterly ridiculous. Watching the film, it’s hard not to find the whole endeavor pretty goofy- the astronauts are absurdly clean-cut, and the dialogue ranges from clich├ęd astronaut jargon to conversations so expository it’ll drive some mad. For roughly the first 30 minutes of the film, I wasn’t sure if this thing was supposed to be a silly or not. As soon as the rescue mission was underway, however, I had my answer: of course it’s supposed to be silly.

This is Brian De Palma, a director whose films are so smart at playing with conventions that their smart-alecky tones are frequently overlooked. Dressed to Kill features a scene that, in a reference to the goofball psychology scene to Psycho, explains the villain’s murderous pathology with a conversation that includes the phrase  “when [his] penis got erect…”; there’s absolutely no way the film is meant to be taken too seriously, yet the film’s jokey manner went over several heads. De Palma mixes comedy and straight-faced, bigger-than-life emotions so idiosyncratically that it’s easy to be turned off by the bizarre tone. The PG-rated Mission to Mars was dismissed by many as a colossally goofy misfire containing little of the director’s personality. It just isn’t so. The film might be playing the goofiness straight, but it’s a good kind of goofiness that exhibits a sensibility that couldn’t come from anyone other than De Palma.

The film was criticized by many for ripping of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this isn’t much different than the pat “he’s a Hitchcock imitator” claims. Yes, there are distinct similarities to 2001: the space stations look suspiciously similar, and one scene involving a revolving space station is so close to the earlier film that it’s easy to see why some were apoplectic. But, in typical De Palma fashion, it’s more of a riff on 2001 that a straight-faced homage. That revolving space station scene is where I realized this was supposed to be funny: they’re using zero-gravity to mess around and dance to Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away”. There’s absolutely no way to take the scene seriously, and that’s the point. It brought a big, goofy grin over my face that wouldn’t disappear.

2001 is hardly the only sci-fi film Mission to Mars tweaks its nose at. De Palma plays with damn near every sci-fi subgenre: the astronaut business is largely inspired by cheesy ‘50s B-movies, complete with cheesy dialogue (“Ok, let’s get ready to light this candle!”) and references to Flash Gordon. A young, goofy actor like Jerry O’Connell seems out of place as an astronaut, but that’s largely the point. He’s not supposed to be a realistic portrayal of an astronaut. He’s a Buck Rogers-style, derring-do adventurer.

The plot about astronauts looking for answers is reminiscent of 2001, but the warm-and-fuzzy tone falls more in line with Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the presence of a wire sculpture of DNA in the foreground draws comparison to the famous Close Encounters mashed potatoes sculpture. There’s an M&M tie-in that’s a clear reference to the Reese’s Pieces product placement in Spielberg’s E.T.; another more infamous piece of product placement is so overtly ridiculous it features characters using a squeeze-pouch of Dr. Pepper to find a leak in the hull (come on, that’s just hilarious). Ennio Morricone’s exquisite score sounds like John Williams’ Close Encounters score by way of the operatic Italian composer. This is almost like it’s De Palma’s Spielberg movie, complete with wonder-and-awe that’s partial rib-nudging, partial earnestness.

The expository dialogue and general corniness of most of the human interactions could be taken at face value, but the similarities to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (honestly one of Howard’s best films, some cornball moments aside) shouldn’t be taken seriously either. The dragged-out explanation for Sinise’s reluctance to fly is so comically long that it’s hard not to laugh. The prominent American flag shots on Mars? Intentionally corny. The home movies? Same. Cheadle’s moment with his son back on Earth (“who’s gonna read to me now?”)? It’s like a goofy De Palma version of a corny Ron Howard version of a Spielberg moment.

What makes the film trickier than just a spoof is the mix of earnestness into the equation. De Palma might be poking fun at these sci-fi conventions, but there’s real affection for the genre nonetheless. The actors all assist him ably, never cracking a smile at any of the ludicrous stuff happening around them. Yes, it’s all very silly, but there’s something awe-inspiring about the mythic draw of space travel, and while De Palma’s “origin of life” business is just as goofy, there’s something admirable about the throwback to idea-driven sci-fi. Armond White’s assertion that someone who pans Mission to Mars “does not understand movies, let alone like them” is smug and obnoxious, but it’s easy to understand his claim that the film’s emotionalism killed it for most people with even a modicum of cynicism (and just when he starts to make sense, you remember he praised Jack and Jill). In the age of irony, it’s easy to see why some might scoff at the squeaky-clean story and general goofiness. When the film reaches its “De Palma imitating Spielberg’s Close Encounters imitating Kubrick’s 2001” ending, it’s undeniably silly, but it nonetheless feels like emotional honesty coming from a science-whiz turned filmmaker.

The director’s technical mastery is in full effect here- long tracking shots and crane shots are a part of De Palma’s filmic vocabulary, but he goes all-out with the possibilities of “zero gravity” camerawork. Love or hate the script (and it’s easy to see why someone might hate it), De Palma can move a camera like no other. The way De Palma shoots the “Dance the Night Away” scene is so visually exciting it’s hard not to get caught up in it. De Palma shows where everyone is in relation to each other, gradually building the wonderfully silly atmosphere until it culminates in rhapsodic dance that’s a clever combination of actual weightlessness and the lightness of romance. De Palma’s lyrical use of match cuts throughout the film only makes the buoyant 2001-riffing more effective.

De Palma’s most well-known influence- Alfred Hitchcock- isn’t absent either. De Palma, like Hitchcock or Spielberg, is a master visual storyteller, and his use of Hitchcockian suspense to tell a story is brilliant. In one extended sequence, De Palma uses a tracking shot to let the audience in on just how something is going to go wrong before the astronauts realize it (the old Hitchcock adage of showing a bomb without making the characters aware of it). There’s genuine suspense in the silly “use Dr. Pepper to find the hull breach” scene, and in an equipment retrieval scene turned tragic. When De Palma drags a rescue scene out to interminable levels, it makes the ultimately tragic end of the scene all the more heartbreaking.

There’s something inherently artificial about the film. De Palma’s intricate camera-movement reveals the sets in all their glory. It brings attention to how the sets are clearly sets, however gorgeous, but it’s appropriate for a director whose filmography so often utilizes Brechtian technique to acknowledge a film-centric worldview. There’s a lot of corniness, goofiness, and sci-fi/emotional kitsch at work in Mission to Mars, but there’s something more going on than base kitsch. De Palma is a filmmaker whose films often work as film criticism. Mission to Mars is both a critique and a celebration of movie kitsch- it’s artificial and it’s hokey, but when in the hands of a master filmmaker like De Palma, it’s still somehow beautiful.

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  1. I think a lot of people where down on the film not just cause of the 'Kubrick Rip-off' stuff but because it tries to tow the line between hard scifi and pulp.

    1. That's a fair guess. I could totally see how the film's shifts back and forth between the goofiest of sci-fi genres to the most cerebral could drive some mad, but that's part of why I loved it so much.

  2. I just stumbled across this via some Googling about Mission to Mars...fantastic review and analysis, you hit on several of the reasons why I am also one of those seemingly few who really loves this film!