March 11, 2000 -- "Mission to Mars" is a sprawling science fiction saga in the tradition of "2001, A Space Odyssey." It has great special effects, but the story is derivative, a combination of standard sci-fi themes from stories like "Contact," "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" and a hundred other Martian Chronicles.
The story has the first Mars mission getting into trouble, and a second mission is raised to rescue the first when contact is lost. The rescue mission, however, has its own problems. The astronauts arrive as a rag-tag band at the original Mars station. There they try to solve the mystery of what wiped out the first Mars expedition and to answer the question of whether we are alone in the universe or not.
The first mission is led by Luc Goddard (played by Don Cheadle of "Out of Sight"). The name Goddard may be a reference to Robert H. Goddard, an early pioneer in rocketry (then again maybe it is a reference to the famed film director Jean Luc Godard). The rescue mission is led by Woody Blake (played by Tim Robbins of "Arlington Road") and Blake's wife, Dr. Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen). It is not a good idea to send a husband and wife on a dangerous rescue mission and you'll see why if you watch this film.
Rounding out this merry band is Jim McConnell, (played by Gary Sinise, the guy who got left behind on "Apollo 13") and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell of "Scream 2"). Together, this group goes through hardship and danger, and some pretty tough technical challenges to achieve its objective. In Sinise and Robbins you've got some top acting talent, and Cheadle does very well, too. O'Connell seems to be the comic relief character, and he's pretty good at it.
I guess the thing I like about this film is the sense of adventure, exploration, and the heroism in the story. You don't see true heroes in the movies very often, but there is plenty of heroism and self-sacrifice in this film. We also have one character who risks his life just for the sake of exploration without having any idea what is going to happen to him or where he will end up. This is heady stuff. Mankind may well have a space station orbiting the earth in 2020, but I don't know if humanity has enough of that old adventurous spirit left to make it to Mars. Hell, we've never even made it back to the Moon. It doesn't seem to me like we've got the huevos for exploration any more, but I hope we do. At least this movie makes it look like we've got the right stuff.
Although the film has great special effects and a good story, it does not have great music. The swelling instrumentals seem way out of place in this kind of adventure. Just once I would have liked to have heard "Marching to Mars" by Sammy Hagar, but you can't have everything. The film does benefit, however, from the direction of the veteran Brian De Palma.
While some may find the science in this film hard to believe, it does follow conventional science fairly well. The idea of a greenhouse on Mars, for instance, is mentioned several times in Robert Zubrin's book "The Case for Mars." Zubrin, a former senior engineer at Lockheed Martin, and a firm proponent of Martian colonization, writes, "Experimentation with agriculture is another high item on the priority list and an inflatable greenhouse will be brought along (on the Mars expedition) for this purpose." It is also possible to extract both oxygen and rocket propellent from the Martian soil. The idea of NASA having two huge "Death Star" class cruisers ready for Mars at any time is, however, unrealistic. The ship would probably be much smaller than the one depicted in the film, and it would be the product of a multinational group, not just one nation. This film rates a C+.
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