Film Commentary [3-14-00]
2001 meets Close Encounters - - Mission to Mars
Genre: Science Fiction
Grade = C

Brian De Palma’s latest opus enters on cue to a backyard barbeque in Dickinson, Texas (a Houston suburb near the NASA complex), where it is the year 2020 and the first manned mission to Mars is going to launch in the next day (apparently NASA decided they don’t have to quarantine the astronauts before a big mission anymore). At the barbeque, we learn that gung ho star astronaut pilot Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise - Forrest Gump, Truman and Wallace ) is not commanding the Mars One mission because he pulled himself out of the astronaut rotation to care for his dying wife. Instead, it will be commanded by Luke Graham (Don Cheadle - Sammy Davis, Jr. in The Rat Pack), one of his best friends. Set for the second mission to follow is the husband and wife astronaut team of Woody Blake and Terri Fisher (Tim Robbins - Shawshank Redemption and Kim Delaney - NYPD Blue) along with Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O’Connell - Sliders, Joe’s Apartment and who manages to steal most of the scenes he’s in).

Moving quickly thereafter, the entire Mars One mission is wiped out by a Mummy-esque sand storm, except for mission commander Luke, who manages to get a message out back to earth. A rescue mission is launched with Jim, Woody, Terri and Phil. During the mission they: suffer a meteor storm that punches holes in the spacecraft, as a result the spacecraft blows up, they abandon ship and transfer to the supply ship orbiting nearby, land, find Luke and discover THE BIG MYSTERIOUS SECRET OF MARS. The end.

Quite frankly, this is not a very good movie. The script was hackneyed, the dialog is wooden and predictable with a preponderance of cardboard characters and cheesy subplots that generate no value for the film. It is entirely derivative of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in film sequences,in the design of the mars spacecraft and even space suit helmets. The opening goodbye party seems to drag on forever as De Palma establishes the how, what, where and why of the movie. Additionally, several of the action scenes were completely illogical. Why did they abandon ship when they could have detached the undamaged mars lander and made it down to the surface that way rather than make the perilous mile-long spacewalk to the supply ship which for some reason doesn’t even have landing gear? Why didn’t Luke get the oxygen and fuel generators running when the others could even though he was stuck there for a whole year and had the engineering expertise to do so? etc. This is the type of thing that really made me hate Armageddon. They even took their helmets off to test whether or not the air was breathable. Sinise in fact did it not once, but twice! This something they did in those terrible sci-fi films of the fifties. We are expected to believe that an exceptionally intelligent, well-trained and disciplined astronaut would just up and take his helmet off like that! Get real.

Another big problem was the blatant use of product endorsements. Two products actually play major roles in the film. M&Ms are used to graphically illustrate the structure of DNA and a Dr. Pepper drink bag is used to find a meteor puncture on the Mars Two. There are other blatant uses such as a Penzoil label on the Mars Rover. This type of use of domestic consumer products is absolutely verboten at NASA. NASA takes extreme measures to avoid the appearance commercial product endorsement after the ‘Tang incident’ of the 1960s. It is a fact that the astronauts do take M&Ms into orbit as a snack, however, the product is purchased from local distributors, carefully sorted and examined and then vacuum packed into small plastic bags and labeled “candy coated chocolate”. The use of the products in this film was far too obvious and I found it distinctly annoying.

But perhaps I’m making the film seem worse than it really was. It was not all bad. There are great sweeping panoramas of the Martian surface that are really awe inspiring. The director has pointed out that they tried to be as realistic as possible, utilizing NASA’s own plans and specifications for a future manned mission to Mars. In fact the design of the mars lander, rover, mars habitat and greenhouse are based on NASA designs and look extremely realistic and it was great to see them portrayed on the big screen. There was also a lot of really cool subsidiary astronaut gear that was great to see. I love all this space exploration stuff. Always have and always will.

But of course, they also went overboard on some of the space science. The film makes use of not one, but two spinning wheel structures to create artificial gravity on the International Space Station and the Mars Two spacecraft. NASA has investigated and rejected the wheel as a means of creating artificial gravity through centrifical force, primarily because they are too difficult to construct in microgravity and use too much material which must be lifted into orbit at a horrendous expense. Currently, the most likely method for creating artificial gravity will utilize space-tether technology, which has already been experimented with on the Space Shuttle. Basically, this is like two balls tied at the ends of string and spun from the middle, creating artificial gravity at the ends through centrifical force like the spinning wheel. The same effect for a fraction of the cost. However, the problems of stability of the spinning structure and strength of the tether remain and prevent this technology from being utilized in the near future (i.e. in the Shuttle experiment the tether broke).

The main problem was that the movie made the mistake of wanting to MEANINGFUL, and failed miserably. They should have stuck with drama, action and the exciting aspects of space exploration. There’s more than enough of that to make an exciting movie without throwing in the alien deus ex machina nonsense.

NOTE: veteran astronaut Story Musgrave who piloted six shuttle missions and was the special space advisor to the film has a cameo appearance at the video conference on the space station. You can recognize him by his very, very bald head. He spends his time mugging to the camera, grinning and nodding his head like a moron. Maybe that’s too harsh, but I recognized him and spent the time watching only him in the scene.

See Ryanburg’s Space Exploration Index

A very accurate Mars Lander almost exact to current NASA design
A very accurate Mars Lander almost exact to current NASA design.

Mars Lander, astronauts and an accurate Mars Rover
Mars Lander, astronauts and an accurate Mars Rover

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