Life reaches out for life.
Mission To Mars. Oh the thrills, the chills. Disney steps up to the plate and puts out a really nice special edition. Too bad the movie is filled with stuff we have all seen countless times before.
Facts of the Case
The year is 2020 and NASA has sent their first manned mission to the Red Planet. The team is lead by Dr. Luke Graham (Don Cheadle), and while investigating some anomalous sensor readings, the team makes a startling and deadly discovery. This discovery takes the form of a huge worm-like sand creature that takes the life of several of the crewmembers and separates the remainder of the team from all communication with Earth.
Alarmed and fearful for their fellow astronauts, NASA quickly assembles a rescue mission lead by Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), his wife Terri (Connie Nielson), the wet-behind-the-ears Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell) and NASA legend Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise). Taking six months to arrive, it is a rescue mission that will face its own set of dangers in the vast unknown of space, paying the ultimate price in the course of trying to survive. It is a mission that will search for answers, and instead find more questions. A mission that will unlock the door that holds the secrets to the source of life in the universe itself. It is a mission that will discover all this and more on its dangerous mission of mercy—its mission to Mars.
It is funny how things change. I watched this movie with zero expectations and found myself pleasantly surprised by the film. Sure it has problems, almost all of them stemming from the screenplay but performances are strong, the movie looks great and Disney did a nice job on the production of the disc. Still, going back and watching it again and talking about the movie with ye old editor, I found myself liking it less and less. These problems are discussed in detail in the next section.
My feeling going into the purchase of this movie was that any picture that starred Gary Sinise (The Green Mile, The Quick And The Dead), Don Cheadle (Traffic, Bulworth) and Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption, High Fidelity) could not be all bad. Throw in the fact the whole thing was directed by Brian DePalma (Sisters, Scarface) and I went in with even more confidence. Limited to those feelings, the movie did not let me down. Sinise is quiet, strong and believable. Cheadle brings his usual sense of humanity to the role, and Robbins provides both good humor and noble leadership to his portrayal.
DePalma, who gets a deserved rap about ripping off the Master, Alfred Hitchcock, is in pretty good form here. Along with cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (The War Of The Roses, The Shadow), the two give the film a cool and fluid look that pays a huge nod to Kubrick and 2001. Rather than most sci-fi thrillers that are cut in such rapid fire energy they end up sucking the life out of whatever is going on (think Michael Bay's Armageddon), Mission To Mars is more content with longer, more languid shots that give the actors time to breathe and actually perform. This is an approach that certainly worked for me. DePalma gives his actors a chance to react and take everything in. As the characters process everything going on around them, so can the viewer. It was a nice change of pace and one that I appreciated.
Say what you will about Disney but when they do a disc right, well, they do a disc right.
The picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and it is a beauty. With not a flaw to be found, the image takes everything the movie has to offer and shines through. This is indeed a film that could be problematic on the video end, especially with all of its red-tinted Mars backdrops, but to Disney's credit, everything came out looking solid and natural. Colors have a pleasant looking sheen to them, with flesh tones remaining supple and true. The film's numerous space scenes also pose no problem. Black levels stay solid and constant while exhibiting no signs of shimmer or pixel breakup. The print used is pristine and the image shows no problems such as nicks or scratches.
Sound is Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and while I'm not set up for 6.1, I was able to get a deal from this mix. Simply put, for me at least, this is the closest I have heard a Dolby Digital mix approach the sound quality of the superior DTS. The sound is one that envelops the room, sounding both spacious and warm. It has crystal clear clarity but also a lovely natural feeling and all the while possessing a great deal of depth. Foley effects, dialogue and music are all perfectly integrated into a beautiful sounding whole. Listening to this within a few days of sitting through Terminator 2 made me wish I had bigger speakers. Needless to say, the source material is of the highest quality and is free of any kind of imperfections.
Disney has packed a good deal of content onto this DVD. First and foremost is a scene-specific commentary track with cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, production designer Ed Verreaux and visual effects supervisors Hoyt Yeatman and John Knoll. As is to be expected, the track is fairly technical, with the bulk of the information being how this shot was done and the research that went into that bit. Fortunately all involved are interesting speakers and they keep everything moving at a pretty good clip. There are few gaps and the feeling I got was that all these guys enjoyed each other, had respect for everyone's work and were proud of what they put onscreen. As a minor aside, the disc only labels the commentary track as "Audio Commentary" with the implication, at least to me, that Brian DePalma was involved. Disney has had the rap in the past that they are untruthful in their labeling—anybody remember the ghost track on Halloween H20? I wish the Mouse would do everyone a favor and be clear in exactly what is on the disc and who the people involved are. It isn't so much to ask, is it?
The disc has a nice section that compares animatics from the film to the actual scenes. There is a fairly comprehensive visual effects breakdown section, which is really informative and only lacks the presence of the multi-angle function to make it truly complete.
In a great change of pace from their usual fluff featurettes, Mission To Mars boasts the documentary, "Visions To Mars." Much more than the expected electronic press kit, this is a pretty interesting look at the making of the film and one that actually answers some questions about the movie.
The movie's theatrical trailer and some DVD-ROM features close out the disc. It is a pretty good package and a welcome sign from the House That The Mouse Built.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It has been said that there are no original ideas left, and Mission To Mars would give validity to that statement. The screenplay of Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Ron Howard's Apollo 13, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, David Lynch's Dune, and even a little bit of Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" philosophy is thrown in for good measure. Despite all the good things the movie has to offer—good acting, some marvelous camera work and great special effects, the alien being the big exception—the whole "been there, done that" feeling holds the film back from receiving a strong recommendation.
Another complaint with the screenplay is how it sells its characters short and has them do dumb "movie" things. Case in point is the section of the film where the ship is decompressing because of a micro meteor shower. With Gary Sinise's character you have the best of the best, a bright and inventive thinker, the ship is in danger, things are going crazy and HE IS GOING TO RISK HIS LIFE, NOT TO MENTION THE CREW AND THE LIFE OF HIS FRIEND DOWN ON MARS AND TURN DOWN OXYGEN???!!! How truly stupid is that? It makes no sense and is completely out of character. For me it almost stopped the movie flat. I could nitpick further but hopefully, everyone gets the idea.
The acting for the most part is pretty strong but even a nice performance by Jerry O'Connell is not enough to save the fact that the screenwriters have made his character, the young Phil Ohlmyer, basically a grown up version of his Vern character from Stand By Me. Not exactly the kind of person I would want in high stress, life and death situations. Comic relief is great but please make the humor grow out of the situations and the people, not just thrown in to lighten things up.
Music is by Ennio Morricone (Wolf, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) and if you have heard one Morricone score, in one way, shape or form, you have heard them all. There are moments when the music is quite lovely and very moving but there are also more than a few moments that just fail to work, pulling the scene it is supposed to be helping, down. If ever a movie called for the work of a Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner, Mission To Mars is it.
As noted, the special effects are pretty outstanding. That is until the alien is shown. Talk about a refugee from the video games of the early '80s. Not a good sign when the thing that is supposed to bring on wonder and a sense of awe instead had me laughing. The alien reminded me of the test footage that is shown on DreamWork's excellent Antz disc. It looks that bad and it sabotages the entire end of the movie.
Finally, in regard to the movie proper, I'm all for people making a buck and I understand that companies want to have visibility in major motion pictures. After all we use certain things in life on a regular basis, so it makes sense to see a Coke or Pepsi can in movies but here in Mission To Mars the ship is literally saved by a Dr. Pepper! I would go on but I feel a rant coming on and that pretty much speaks for itself.
Now for something completely different. Has anyone out there who reads this site ever wondered why they don't see more or early reviews of discs released from Disney? Simple, no screeners. Disney is the only major studio that does not support the independent reviewing of their product and it is too bad. A year ago, when pretty much everything they were releasing was bare bones garbage with sub-par transfers, I could understand it. These days it seems that they have turned a corner, not a corner like Fox has turned but still they are going in the right direction. To my way of thinking it would make some degree of sense that they would want to show off their product. This is Disney we are talking about however, so it almost goes without saying, not much they do makes a whole lot of sense.
Mission To Mars is not a bad movie, its just not a really good one either. The elements are present for a really good sci-fi cinematic romp but unfortunately the movie's screenplay holds the film back from achieving great things. Mission To Mars boasts some great set pieces that are tautly directed and well acted but the movie asks the audience to swallow a lot of stuff to get to them.
As a disc, this is one of the most impressive looking and sounding discs Disney has yet released. As an added bonus the DVD actually has enough extra content that it can be considered a special edition.
While I'm pretty sure the disc is not worth buying, given lowered or zero expectations the movie is not a bad evening's rental.
Mission To Mars is convicted of not being original and of selling its audience short. Disney is thanked for putting out a really good disc, this court only wished it had to opportunity to review this release before street date so we could better help our readers decide how they wish to spend their hard earned cash. That is it. Good day.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Audio Commentary with Visual Effects Supervisors Hoyt Yeatman & John Knoll, Production Designer Ed Verreaux, and Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum, A.S.C.
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