"Mission to Mars" (Imdb listing) tries to mix "The Abyss," "Contact" and "2001" in a gourmet galactic gumbo. It's a nice attempt, but the end product has the consistency of raw Martian dust.
Set in 2020, "Mission" focuses on two groups of NASA astronauts bound for Mars. The first group lands without incident, but soon stumbles upon a powerful force that wipes out most of the crew and severs the communication link back to Earth. Realizing their NASA comrades might be stranded on a desolate alien world, a second group of top-shelf astronauts is assembled for a rescue mission. The film follows this second group as they race to the Red Planet.
On paper, the movie has a lot going for it. Three of the primary actors -- Gary Sinise ("Forrest Gump," "Apollo 13"), Tim Robbins ("The Shawshank Redemption") and Don Cheadle ("Out of Sight") -- have excelled in recent projects. Director Brian De Palma has a successful track record with hits like the "The Untouchables" and "Mission: Impossible." Blessed with NASA's full cooperation and a big budget, "Mission" seems poised for success.
So why doesn't it work?
De Palma fails to walk the thin line between science fiction and intellectual stimulation. "Contact" expertly navigated the same treacherous territory in 1997, but that film was supported by deft direction and credible performances. "Mission" has its moments, but its half-hearted attempts at emotional connection don't take hold and the actors never commit to their characters.
Watching this impressive cast go through the motions is embarrassing. Tim Robbins, playing a stereotypical mission commander, wastes his talent spouting lines like "work the problem, people." Jerry O'Connell ("Sliders") draws upon Matt LeBlanc's lowly performance in "Lost in Space" to play a girl-crazy space jock. Armin Mueller-Stahl ("The X-files"), a character actor with unusual presence, reduces himself to a tanned Henry Kissinger. Most disappointing is Gary Sinise, who shows he can't carry a film. Sinise seems like a nice guy, but he's got the wattage of a bagel.
Worse still is the score, which is an odd mix of cacophonous orchestration and 70s-era romance. Moments of crisis are rendered limp by misplaced background music. It's as though composer Ennio Morricone ("The Untouchables," "Bulworth") thought he was scoring "Love Story in Space." You half-expect to see Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw floating through the Horsehead nebula.
You can't fault De Palma for trying. His attempt to inject humanity and intelligence into the sci-fi genre is noble, but the execution is mediocre. Without a foundation of plot and performance, asking the audience to embrace "Mission's" intellectual elements is an exercise in futility.
Filmfodder Grade: D