Having forsaken his series of homages to Alfred Hitchcock,
which ended with the dreadful “Raising Cain” in 1992, Brian De
Palma has now apparently turned his attention to aping the
late Stanley Kubrick’s work. “Mission to Mars” is like a
version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” stripped of all the
earlier film’s intelligence and grandeur. While Kubrick’s
1968 opus was a transcendent experience, deeply ambiguous and
visually startling, De Palma’s picture is, despite its outer-
space motif, an entirely earthbound affair, as crudely explicit
as an episode of the old “Flash Gordon” serials and just about
as cheesy to look at.

The juvenile plot involves an emergency mission to the Red
Planet designed to rescue any members of an earlier expedition
who might have survived a catastrophic encounter with some
unexplained force on the Mars surface. Peopled by cardboard
characters and told in incessantly lame dialogue that sounds
as though it’s been written by a 13-year old who’s been held
back several grades in school, the movie details the myriad
vicissitudes suffered by the crew before concluding with a
dopey denouement that’s part great escape and part “Close
Encounters of the Third Kind”-style beatific optimism. It’s
typical of the difference between Kubrick’s and De Palma’s
visions that while the fotmer’s film ended in existential
mystery, the latter’s winds up with sentimental drivel.

Given the poverty-row quality of the script, it’s not
surprising that while the cast is good, the acting is atrocious.
Tim Robbins smiles vacantly as the mission commander, and Gary
Sinise, as his co-pilot, seems to be making up for his rabid
overacting in “Reindeer Games” by here underplaying so
stenuously that he almost disappears from the screen. Jerry
O’Connell tries to provide some comic relief as the most
exuberant member of the crew, but what passes for wit in his
lines is puerile, while Don Cheadle, playing the commander of
the apparently doomed first expedition, works hard to create a
character where none exists. As Robbins’ spouse, who’s also
a member of the rescue mission, Connie Nielsen is simply awful.
Under the circumstances it’s understandable that Armin Mueller-
Stahl should have decided to remain unbilled as the NASA
mission director; apart from a couple of instances when he’s
required to throw up his hands and irritatedly say “Now wait
a minute,” he’s given approximately nothing to do but look
bored–an expression which would seem to qualify him for a
place in the audience, not the cast.

Is there anything of note in “Mission to Mars”? Well, a few
of the effects are decent enough; but overall they pale
beside the impact of Kubrick’s work of more than three decades
ago. And its alternately comic-book, soap-opera approach is
embarrassing in comparison to the brilliant iconoclasm of
“2001.” De Palma has made some excellent films (“Carrie,”
“Blow Out,” “The Untouchables” and “Casualties of War”), and
even his lesser efforts (“Sisters,” “Obsession,” “The Fury,”
“Dressed to Kill, “Scarfare,” “Carlito’s Way”) often had
compensating virtues that made them watchable. But this new
picture falls into the third category of his big-budget works–
resolutely bad movies in which the strengths are few and far
between. “Wise Guys,” “Body Double,” “Raising Cain,” “Bonfire
of the Vanities” and “Mission: Impossible” are representative
examples, and “Mission to Mars” may be the worst of the bunch.