Of all the legendary directors from the '70sthose young turks who invaded Hollywood and momentarily converted studio execs to the auteur theorythe most overrated must surely be one Brian DePalma. Mentioned in the same breath as Coppola and Scorsese, he has been hailed as a film artiste, a sculptor of imagery who has assumed the weighty mantle of Hitchcock as a maestro of suspense. One small problem: His films are usually pretty darn crappy. And it's derivative crap at that.
Consider the evidence at your local video store; the DePalma oeuvre consists mostly of poorly told stories interspersed with a few nicely shot sequences. His thrillersBody Double (1984), Blow Out (1981), Dressed to Kill (1980)are not just Hitchcock homages, they're out-and-out Hitchcock rip-offs shamelessly copying the master's cinematic style and vocabulary. His big-budget blockbustersMission: Impossible (1996) and The Untouchables (1987)coasted on the box office power of their stars without offering simple things like cohesive plotting or character development. Then there are the titles that were almost instantly forgotten upon their release, and for good reasons: Snake Eyes (1998), Raising Cain (1992), Wise Guys (1986). Hell, even his most notorious bomb, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), doesn't have much to distinguish it other than its bungled production. Meanwhile, "arty" fare like Carlito's Way (1993) and Casualties of War (1989) had high intentions, fine actors, and...zzzzzzzz. DePalma's few memorable films are remarkable mostly for their violence. Scarface (1983), amped up by an Oliver Stone script, at least had a wildly overacting Al Pacino to counterbalance the brutally graphic killings. And Carrie (1976) had Sissy Spacek, who can do no wrongeven covered in pig blood.
There's no doubt that DePalma can deliver injections of adrenaline, but his films are devoid of much else, lacking real emotion or even cleverness. While he often speaks highly of his own artistry in interviews, his movies smell of hackwork. Nevertheless, DePalma is considered an "A-list" director who's able to fuse art and commerce, one who's worthy of big budgets and big stars. Which brings us to his latest bit of Xerox cinema, Mission to Mars.
At first, the trailer looked great: earnest-looking NASA astronauts, exploding spaceships, a sentient sandstorm, a big alien face on the surface of Mars. And something breathing ominously in the background. It made one hope for a genuine, old-fashioned science fiction tale unencumbered by evil empires, ravenous aliens, or virtual reality. And indeed, that's what DePalma was shooting for, much to his credit. While most s.f. movies today feature blazing plasma blasters, Mission to Mars strives for technological feasibility above everything elseincluding a good story, unfortunately.
Don Cheadle stars as the captain of the first manned expedition to Mars. While investigating a metallic outcropping atop a mountain, his crew is killed by a mysterious storm, leaving him the lone survivor. Sent in to rescue him are space captains Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise, who experience some serious technical difficulties along the way but manage to land on Mars. There, the rescue team encounters some pretty striking signs of intelligent alien life. And that's itstraight out of the 1952 science-fiction codebook of plots. Certainly, this is not a bad thing in itselfthe storyline is so retro as to be fresh again, and it's rare for a science fiction film to rely on a sense of wonder these days. But the dialogue is so stilted, the script so void of surprises, the actors so damn bored, that Mission to Mars is inevitably a very long, familiar trip without much of a destination.
DePalma wasn't just inspired by landmark science fiction films of the pasthe steals from them without even bothering to cover his tracks. He loots the NASA design aesthetic of 2001: A Space Odyssey, from space suits to space ships, then even boldly appropriates the all-white alien "room" lock, stock, and barrel. He duplicates the outer-space emergencies of 1954's Conquest of Space, another film that sacrificed drama for realism. Then there are the astronaut-family backyard grill-out scenes from Apollo 13 (not a s.f. film, admittedly, but geez!). And how about those leftover aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Finally, DePalma filches a denouement that simply repeats one of the oldest s.f. plot gimmicks of all timewithout even so much as a slight twist or new wrinkle. The end. (I'd love to blurt it out right here, but that would cheat you of the experience of smacking your own forehead at the theater and muttering, is that all?!)
Despite its rehashed s.f. movie elements, though, I still found myself rooting for Mission to Mars to turn that corner and start spinning a real yarnor at least providing some of the bombast for which DePalma is known. Alas, all we get is the dry, red sand of a barren Mars. And some nicely shot weightlessness sequences.