Is Mission to Mars an auteurist litmus test for the Y2K generation in the same sense that Baby Face Nelson or The Girl Can’t Help It were in the theory’s salad days? Or is Mission To Mars the ultimate in hackery? Is De Palma etched into every CGI-loaded frame? Or can’t his personality overcome a budgetary tidal wave in the shape and magnitude of $80 million? While it’s tempting to shrug such questions off with a “go fiddle with your Hatari and jerk your Steel Helmet somewhere else, there’s formalism to be seduced here” (yes, even in this context of a critical appraisal of a singular talent), the impulse would rob an already gravelly underrated movie of its context. It would suck the air out of Mission to Mars like space robs Tim Robbins of his every last droplet of essential moisture. Leave a movie like Mission to Mars to fester among the slaves to the genre, and you’ll wind up with a bloated and laughably irrelevant Web page of technical gaffes over on IMDb. So while an auteurist reading of Mission to Mars might invite self-involved chatter over whether the movie or the viewer is supplying the meaning, at least you won’t find yourself sharing an oxygen mask with a caste of Trekkie outcasts. And Trekkies can’t dance in outer space.
Buena Vista undoubtedly conceived of a very different film than the Mission to Mars it released in theaters. Its once and future pie-eyed protagonist is played by Gary Sinise, revealing executives’ intentions; this was meant to be a space movie aimed at those for whom Apollo 13, in which Sinise brooded and kicked clods of dirt while everyone else got to board the Good Ship Patriotism, was just a little bit too dark. Why they hired De Palma is beyond me, but they must’ve felt intensely pleased with themselves when the movie earned a kid-friendly PG rating. But Mission to Mars isn’t only a warm, up-with-people sci-fi actioneer in an Event Horizon era. It’s also a fearless twist on the sadly still controversial theory of evolution, a completely anti-James Cameronian epic with a blockbuster budget and a completely becalmed man at the helm, and maybe the first chapter in De Palma’s already richly rewarding “old man cinema” period. And did I mention that De Palma gets the chance to redux Fiona Lewis’s gothic pirouette of death from The Fury, only this time the limbs actually fly off?
Sure, De Palma may have been able to direct movies with an AARP card in his back pocket since 1992’s Raising Cain, but without Mission to Mars and Sinise’s haunted memories of Kim Delaney, De Palma could’ve never found it within himself to make Femme Fatale, his answer to that immortal one-two “old man cinema” punch of 1964: Hitchcock’s Marnie and Dreyer’s Gertrud. While the obvious connection between these three films won’t necessarily win over feminists for whom auteurism is another way of saying “no girls allowed,” all three mark a decisive point of psychological capitulation on the part of otherwise resolute personalities.
Mission to Mars’ redemptive coda opened the door for the subsequent film’s continuing figurative and literal sanguinity. There are few sights more disturbingly beautiful in the De Palma canon than Jerry O’Connell’s miniature globes of blood dancing in the air as they drift toward a hole in the Mars-bound shuttle’s structure. At once referencing bodily danger and assisting the crew and allowing them to repair a potentially greater danger, the fluidity of the film—from its blood to its serpentine cinematography—testifies to its elegance. Not to say there’s not a little hardening in De Palma’s heart even at this stage. It’s more a reflection of our culture’s reactionary values than of De Palma’s radicalism that this film airs on the Disney-owned ABC television network without its poetically direct 3D diorama of Earth’s evolution, suggesting the redolence of a corporation in hysterical self-censorship mode. But even De Palma turns the majority of the film’s saintly NASA heroes away at film’s end, leaving them to turn around and return to a planet of genetic inferiority. A planet where gravity makes it awfully difficult to dance through air.