Had Stanley Kubrick never made 2001: A Space Odyssey, the new Mission To Mars might pass as a reasonably entertaining repackaging of golden-age, thought-driven science fiction for the blockbuster market. Unfortunately for Mission To Mars, Kubrick did make 2001, a feat of hard science and religious awe never matched in the three decades of flying saucers and laser pistols that followed it. Director Brian De Palma has built a generally exciting, frequently brilliant career by standing on the shoulders of the directorial giants who preceded him, but here he stands only in the shadows. Set in 2020, Mission To Mars follows the perilous first attempt at a manned expedition to Mars. Following the mysterious disappearance of the mission's first-phase crew, a rescue team—consisting of a husband-and-wife pair (Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen), a heartbroken widower (Gary Sinise), and Jerry O'Connell, who seems far too dumb to have made it through basic training—sets out to retrieve sole survivor Don Cheadle after an excessive period of talk and exposition. Once in orbit around Mars, their voyage is troubled by mechanical difficulties before taking a turn into the mystic. Sound familiar? The four screenwriters credited with Mission To Mars (or, as the ad campaign would have it, M2M) know their space-movie history and yet seem doomed to repeat it, borrowing liberally from Apollo 13 and Close Encounters when 2001 won't do. The special effects look great, of course, the production design has a refreshing nuts-and-bolts believability, and De Palma gets in a couple of eye-catching zero-gravity setpieces, including one in which a clumsily integrated squeeze tube of Dr. Pepper saves the day. None of this, however, compensates for a creeping dullness, underdeveloped characters that resist the best efforts of an overqualified cast, and a disastrous final segment that seems to strive for an early definition of 21st-century kitsch. Mission To Mars' astronauts appear awed at what they find, but it's hard to imagine audiences being satisfied with a holographic light show that looks like a Playstation 2 demo reel and packs a similar emotional impact.
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