Thursday, April 11, 2024

Walt Disney, part LV: Mars and beyond


Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas, John Thomas, and Graham Yost

Spoilers: high

A return to writing about live-action features is probably good for both of us, but placing 2000's Mission To Mars into Disney's history offers certain challenges, because Mission To Mars is, speaking historically, a black hole.  (Not that onethough there are, obviously, similarities.)  It seems like it should be important to Disney history: what we have is the first in what might be the most dubious line in Disney's filmography, that is, movies based on their theme park rides.  This movie is, presumably, based on the ride, Mission To Mars; Mission To Mars began as Tomorrowland's Rocket To the Moon in 1955, before being refitted in 1973 into something less surpassable by reality; and Mission To Mars closed five years before the movie even started, the original in Disneyland shutting down in 1992, with its Disney World iteration following suit in 1993.

And that, I'm afraid, is our production history, and I still have to use words like "presumably."  Why, how, and through whom it was decided to make this Disney's first theme park ride adaptation, and if it even has anything to do with their better-documented later efforts to make movies out of animatronic bears and haunted dark rides, I honestly can't say.  You'd think DisneyWar would spare a sentence, but it doesn't.  The DVD's special features almost seem to be deliberately unhelpful: unusually, Mission To Mars's commentary track is led by its cinematographer, Stephen Burum, alongside its production designer, Ed Verreaux, with a couple of its VFX supervisors, and if your guess is that it's a two-hour conversation about lighting and camera cranes and sets and digital post-production tools, your guess isn't wrong.  You'd still think, at some point, they'd at least allude to how their project originated.

I have, instead, only unconnected facts: it was actually back in 1997 that Disney produced their very first film about a theme park ride, Tower of Terror, a junky ABC television movie, and this was sufficiently based on its namesake attraction to be partially shot at it, though that film actually gives an "inspired by" credit to the ride, whereas Mission To Mars does not; Verreaux did some of his initial design work at Burbank in October 1998; its director, Brian De Palma, who declined to have a conversation with his colleagues about the movie he'd just made with them, is rumored to have snatched the opportunity away from a less-experienced filmmaker named Gore Verbinski, who, by way of cosmic justice, wound up with a much plummer Disney ride movie a few years later; and, for his part, De Palma had such a bad experience working on it that he swore off studios for all time, though all I'm sure about with this is that Disney hustled him to hit a release date.  (As far as his promise goes, notwithstanding The Black Dahlia's studio distribution, he's stuck to it.  It's worked out really well for him.)  In the end, another theme park attraction, the jostle ride Mission: SPACE, redeployed some of the movie's design elements, along with its star, Gary Sinise, to sell its own experience.  Thus for all I know Mission To Marswhich hasn't much to do with the ride beyond a rocket trip to Marssimply happened to be a screenplay already floating around, which just got "Mission To Mars" slapped on it once Disney funded it for distribution through Touchstone, because that seemed like a natural-enough branding exercise.  In fairness, it's probably about as descriptive a name as you're going to get without chiseling away at the mystique.

What is knowable, then, is the legacy of Mission To Mars, and as its yawning abyss of a production history suggests, it's a pitiably minimal one.  Its biggest claim to fame is that the year 2000 saw Disney and Warners dueling with Mars movies, the latter's chosen weapon being Red Planet, and somehow both studios shot themselves in the face.  Its second biggest is its aforementioned role in dismantling the career of one of the greatest filmmakers of the late 20th century.  Now, even as a flop, it did better business than Red Planet (which I find relieving, because Red Planet is horrible and I'm glad people could tell the difference), though I get the impression they're accorded roughly the same amount of respect today.  Meanwhile, its only significant critical plaudit was being included on the Cahiers top ten for 2000, albeit, presumably, more on the basis of De Palmaniacal contrarianism.  There's been little effort to rehabilitate it since then, inasmuch as De Palma himself clearly doesn't give a shit, permitting an inference that he was only jobbing anyway, and never gave a shit.  So I'm out in the wilderness again: myself, I love Mission To Mars, pretty much with my whole heart, despite its frustrating flaws.

Reductively, but not inaccurately, what we have is "what if Apollo 13 were also an unchallenging and digestible version of 2001: A Space Odyssey?", and while those two spaceflight movies don't seem like they ought to taste especially good together, De Palma and his screenwriters do well integrating their quasi-realistic spam-in-a-can spaceflight thriller into the pseudoscientific mysticism that its first twenty minutes have promised will be waiting for us at the end.  They accomplish this, basically, by not really acknowledging that there's much of any difference to be split, treating everything with a certain reverence, only lightly veiled with square good humor.  That screenplay then, posits this: in 2020, which was the future at the time, NASA is about to send its first crewed mission to Mars, unimaginatively named Mars I.*  The question of who exactly would constitute this crew has been only recently resolved, and the honor of command, it turns out, has fallen to Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), rather than to Jim McConnell (Sinise).  Jim won't be on the scheduled follow-up, either, comprising married astronauts Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen), plus scientist-of-some-sort Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell), but Jim probably would've led Mars I, alongside his wife, Maggie (Kim Delaney in flashbacks), except that sometime in the previous year, she died, and, in his grief, Jim took himself out of consideration.

And we've got most of that down in a few minutes, in a way that makes me think that any contention that De Palma never cared would need to be abandoned within the first two shots of his film, a couple of High De Palmian serpentine long takes through a going-away party for Luke and his crew; by the time this first scene is over we've gotten that backstory, as well as a fairly good sense of the razor-thin distinctions we're going to get to make between the personality that all our characters essentially share, which is a sort of parody of 60s astronauts.  We can discuss that latter aspect shortly, but while we can admit presently that this screenplay is going to overenunciate that backstory, regardless of De Palma's efficiencyby the fifth time someone's mentioned Jim's wife is dead, I really wanted to assure Jim and John Thomas and Graham Yost that we already knowone of the things I've always admired about De Palma is that even in his most commercial efforts, he didn't job.  He always made De Palma movies.**  Mission To Mars is not "sleazy thriller" De Palma (even then the Disney De Palma is not completely de-sexed); but it's De Palma in the ways that count the most, starting but by no means concluding with this opening pair of long takes that exist as much to ground the movie in an earthly reality before taking it into more celestial spheres.

Well, Luke goes to Mars, of courseCydonia, specificallyand whether that already means something to you, it will by the end of the sequence where they toss some radio waves into an interesting rock formation that doesn't seem to like what it's hearing, so it blasts them with a Martian cyclone, revealing to us what was underneath it: a face, on Mars.  NASA and our other heroes don't know that yet, but Mars II is nonetheless accelerated, and Woody drafts Jim into what's become a rescue mission.  Their year-long voyage is uneventful, right up until it isn't, and they don't even manage to get their ship down in one piece (nor do they all live through its disintegration); but as it happens, Luke has survived.  The question, now, is what else has.

It's easy to be hostile to Mission To Mars, but I could say, off the bat, that I think it's cool that there's a (legitimate) movie about Face on Mars lore; when we see it in the first act, it already sets the tone of guileless sincerityand, because De Palma's taken the surprise away, to some degree it's also a tone of ritual pleasurethat is, ultimately, his movie's main operating mode.  It's only somewhat a departure for the filmmaker (De Palma has a reputation for nihilism, but even his gnarly thrillers bounce around between curdled pessimism and squint-eyed hopefulness), but it is a novel subject matter for him, and it's a joy to watch him stretch.  (I appreciate further that it's not loony and paranoid, which is a departure for De Palma, as well as the only correct way to treat such conspiracy-adjacent material: I mean, really, imagine the idea that NASA, a bureaucracy that solely exists to take in money and turn that into publicly-celebrated scientific achievement, electing not to tell you about a lost civilization on Mars and asking for a trillion dollars to dig it up.)

But it comes with some aggravatingly unforced errors.  We're going to get panspermia and ancient astronauts, and, remarkably, initially it's not even all that dumbshit; then they go and ruin their own restraint.  The plot turns on human DNA, and leaving aside all the profound geologic (or areologic) errors here, even inside the film our Martian hosts couldn't possibly know the first thing about human DNA, not so much as its chromosome count, a number we don't even share with other apes.  Of course, if we didn't wish to leave it aside, the screenplay appears to conflate the end of the Hesperian Period on Mars with the beginning of the Cambrian Period on Earth.  Honestly, given that the Martians were obliged to leave Mars for another world, the real mystery here is why they limited themselves to seeding Earth, rather than colonizing the spare planet they already had.

Well, millions, billions, let's call the whole thing off; the point is not scientific accuracy, nor even to not be dumb, but to seek a sense of wonder, and while I don't really blame anyone for scowling through its 2001ish white rooms or scoffing at the CGI Martian, it works for me, even down to the most explicit 2001 homages/rip-offs.  (I will say I very much enjoy the detail in Verreaux's production design of the pixel-fuzzed edges of the Martian gateways, including the "monolith" analogue; it gives it an interesting hint of surrealism that, admittedly, the planetarium with drawn-on orbit lines gives up on too easily.  One takes the inspired ideas with the less so, then, as well as the ones where there's obviously been some kind of miscommunication: De Palma and editor Paul Hirsch's cross-cutting between Luke's innocuous, thirteen-minute-delayed final message to Earth and his "cyclone worm" catastrophe on Mars is a good idea, but executed less-than-perfectly, given that the actors' merely confused expressions indicate that what the VFX team thought they'd act like they were looking at, and what Cheadle et al actually think they're looking at, weren't exactly the same thing.  But that's CGI in 2000 for you, and you have to make allowances, up to and including the way that digitally-replacing the skies on location-shot exterior footage results in a Mars that looks like a soundstage regardless.  But I do like the overly-red-pushed, pulp-adjacent Mars this brings us.)  Anyway, the underlying concept's not so bad; it's more like the Martians just hoped somebody interesting would pop up.  The joke's on them, though, since they got these guys.

I kid!  But it is a perennial criticism of Mission To Mars.  Whatever else, I agree that you really do have to be on the right wavelength to appreciate this dialogue and these performances.  The former is about 50% bad dad jokesthe characters are differentiated predominantly by how their percentage of groaners interacts with their base competence level, with Robbins going whole hog along with O'Connell, and in barely distinct registersand if the description of any movie involves "it flattens the performances so hard that Tim Robbins and Jerry O'Connell are on, approximately, the same plane," you wouldn't be wrong to worry about it (though they're distinct enough that Robbins is still doing better than O'Connell, and he gets to do the largest amount of actual acting here, alongside a surprisingly-able Nielsen).  As for our presumptive anchor, Sinise, he's even sometimes confusing Jim's sullenness with a disinterested passivity.  At least he gets the single best acting moment, thanks to a pair of surprisingly-long insert shots in a scene that isn't really about him, that offer up some rewarding ambiguities regarding whether he's getting even sadder about his dead wife, or if, maybe, he's finally waking up to new adventures after all.

The thing is, this is De Palma, and much of De Palma's career has involved playing with unconventionally-calibrated performances.  Hence it's not completely insane to suspect a certain purposefulness here, and there is a perceptible strategy: besides just the pure fun of running mostly-good actors through a very pure and specific strain of genre, it sets a certain glib, low-affect baseline that turns out to work terrifically on behalf of the thriller sequences to come, clearing the way for little but logical procedure, yet becoming all the more fraught because of the increasingly-noticeable efforts of will it takes for our heroes to stop themselves from behaving like humans in an environment that would, otherwise, summarily reject humanity.  In other words, it's really good for the movie that De Palma's the most interested in making here.

In fact, what I find most valuable in Mission To Mars is what I suspect De Palma did, which is less Mars and more the mission, and how it allowed him, Burum, Hirsch, and Verreaux to play with the visual concept of existence in space, its potentials for both beauty and horror.  What we get out of that, then, is Verreaux's giant spinning wheel and Burum's giant spinning camera (and Burum's customarily marvelous work coaxing deep focus out of Panavision lenses), and De Palma and Hirsch generally refusing to fix anything to a y-axis because, in space, such an axis would be meaningless.  Startlingly, what some might call the least "De Palma" of all De Palma movies reveals the director's stylistic concerns as much as just about anything in his filmography, specifically his long-standing interest in using what amounts to stagecraft inside a film frame, and in the magic that happens when a filmmaker manages to convince you of something you know isn't possible because of what he's gracefully pretending he's not hiding from you.  And it's graceful as all get-out, never moreso than in a scene that exists seemingly entirely for its own sake, where we just explore our new environment alongside our carefully-choreographed actors, whereupon Robbins and Nielsen dance on air, thanks to what mostly only amounts to primitive camera and mechanical trickery (there's one shot with full-on digital wire replacement and visible feet, to insist upon the illusion), but is as lovely and as sweet as any passage in De Palma's career.  I'd furthermore declare it to be the highest use of Van Halen in cinema.  ("Dance the Night Away" is awfully well-chosen for the film's purposes, anyhow, winding up oblique foreshadowing: "take a chance, you're old enough to dance" is, after all, the invitation extended to Jim in the end.  The scene doesn't actually exist solely for its own sake.)

It's corny, too, but I love it, and I love, almost as much, the danger that soon thereafter intrudes upon this idyllic vision of space travel.  This is exactly what you'd expect and desire from De Palma, a pair of long, patient, dialogue-light thriller sequences stacked atop one another, starting with a micrometeorite storm and ending with the destruction of the Mars I and a desperate escape to a resupply vehicle that's almost in the same orbit.  The latter benefits from some striking geometries of spacesuited humans, as well as De Palma's attested skills at tragedy, which find a stark expression in the mathematically-bounded scenario of any serious spaceflight disaster flick (almost might as well be not at all, yet somehow it's much more horrible); and the whole thing, but especially the micrometeorite shower and the increasing deterioration of the ship, benefits immensely from the other best thing about Mission To Mars, Ennio Morricone's wonderful and varied score.  It has, heretofore, done space cliche very well (not a little 2001 Ligeti in the Mars sequences, alongside other expressions of awe, and it'll venture into mournful militaristic tribute and adventurous triumphalism, too); but this is its finest moment, this deceptively minimalistic series of organ tones, rising and falling for full minutes, just clawing at your nerves while our heroes try very hard to keep their ship in one piece and with at least some of the air they started with.  I think Mission To Mars does everything it wants to well enough, right up through the end, and its evocation of exploration and discovery makes me happy; but thanks to the forty minutes it spends offering setpiece after setpiece to a very eager filmmaker, who was sadly not going have a lot of eagerness left in him afterwards, I'd probably love it a little bit even if it did everything else terribly.

Score: 8/10 

*So unimaginatively that it's even the same name as the ship in Red Planet.
**"Even Bonfire of the Vanities?"  I mean, sorta?


  1. Well, this was out of left field for me. Somehow it had completely skipped my notice that this was based off a Disney ride, to the point where I had to do some googling myself before I could totally believe it. Well, what do you know!

    It's been too long since I'd last seen it to offer a nuanced opinion, but I do remember thinking it wasn't quite as "dumb" as its reputation (for some reason the word "dumb" seemed to be the first thing everyone used to describe it) but also thinking it didn't quite sell that second-half swerve into '2001' territory. Also I kind of miss Gary Sinise, and I always thought he'd make a good Dr. McCoy in a Star Trek movie.

  2. Does this mean 'Dinosaur' is up next? I guess I just gotta stick around a couple days to find out!

    1. It does. The real question is whether it means I've gotta do The Haunted Mansion, Country Bears, and possibly so forth, and I dunno, that expands the ambit beyond what I'd like, though I could cut it off after the first Pirates. (I have some affection for The Haunted Mansion, after all, and in truth, I am actually really curious about The Country Bears.)

      As for Sinise, he found a comfortable living on CIS: NY, I guess.

      Mission To Mars is more blatantly dumb viz. its version of evolutionary biology, but I would forward that 2001 commits pretty much the exact same sins on a literal level, it's just much artier and easier to take as a metaphor.

  3. I must admit that seeing Mr de Palma’s name on a Science Fiction feature film really piqued my interest: it’s a fascinatingly unexpected twist to a career I most often associate with Crime Thrillers.

    1. Yeah, his career's not completely lacking in subject matter diversity (Carrie, for instance, or Phantom of the Paradise), but the main line is paranoia-tinged thrillers of some vein or another, sometimes crime-based (Scarface and Carlito's Way), sometimes war-based (Casualties of War, Mission: Impossible after a fashion), and most often voyeurism-based remakes of Rear Window (basically half his filmography).