Review: Mission to Mars
The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book titled See You in the Dark: Two Decades of my Cinephilia in North Dakota. The review was originally written in 2002:
MISSION TO MARS
I’m probably unique among Brian De Palma fans. Most people focus on the violence—and there’s certainly plenty of it. The chainsaw scene in Scarface and the power drill murder in Body Double are often discussed. Most of his fans and critics alike also go on and on about his many borrowings from Alfred Hitchcock.
Similarly to how Natural Born Killers all really boiled down for me to Mickey saying, “There’s not enough kissing in the world,” and him and Mallory spinning around in each other’s arms in ecstasy; De Palma’s best films for me are all love stories and Mission to Mars is De Palma’s one film where his romantic side takes center stage. It is about a man who has fallen in love, has been deeply hurt while at his most vulnerable, and is trying to find the courage to love again.
It was simply one of those lucky coincidences that I’d watched De Palma’s Carrie just a day before watching Mission to Mars and remembered the tiny little throwaway line of dialog that become the key to my interpretation.
Few films have been chewed up and spit out and rinsed down the drain as gleefully as Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars. People doing so have missed something crucial though. They spend so much time taunting De Palma for being a copycat that they forget that his referencing previous films often include referencing his own. Mission to Mars is a companion piece to Carrie, retelling of that film’s pivotal scene.
In Carrie, Carrie and Tommy are at the prom and are dancing in ecstatic spirals—emphasized by De Palma’s swirling camera. As frightening as the idea is to her, Carrie is in love. Asked how she is feeling, she replies, “I feel like I’m on Mars.” Shortly after that, Carrie has those feelings doused in pig’s blood. She is crushed in a moment of happiness. But why is she hurt, really? She knows none of the kids in her school like her. She knows she doesn’t belong at the prom much less be so honored at one. She is so hurt because she has taken the big risk and allowed herself to fall in love, a state where one is most vulnerable. And when one falls in love with another, the two biggest fears, the two things that would be the most devastating are being hurt by that person and losing that person. At that climactic moment, Carrie is hit—over the head—with both of these fears. Was Tommy a part of all this? Is he dead?
Move forward to Mission to Mars. Carrie’s throwaway line about being in love feeling like being on Mars has been re-employed by De Palma and invested with grand new meaning. Mars has become a symbol for love and all the ecstasies and terrors that go with it. Jim McConnell, the Gary Sinise character, has been hurt deeply by the death of his wife. He hasn’t gotten over it. He no longer goes to Mars. His need is to overcome this, to get over his fears and to go to Mars again. Or, more literally, he needs to allow himself to fall in love again.
In his article, A Nerd’s Rhapsody, Ray Sawhill discusses some of the symbols at play in the film:
“…there’s a real vision here … an almost Tantric vision of women (the circle) and men (the column) attaining occasional bliss (the spiral) together … Late in the film, McConnell is being prepared for a long journey. He steps into a lighted circle, is encased in a glass column (those circles! those columns!), and is submerged in a clear, roiling liquid … Is he dying or in ecstasy? …and [the scene] ends with a blastoff through a column of luminous swirling debris.”
If you note the expressions on McConnell’s face during this final scene when he lets go and allows the fluid to fill his lungs, it is clear that he is getting over his fear and is falling in love again. He has fully returned to Mars and is ready for the first time since losing his wife to experience ecstasy.
At the center of Mission to Mars is another couple, Woodrow ‘Woody’ (Tim Robbins) and Terri (Connie Nielsen), already in a state of happily married bliss. They are at Mars. They go through a reprise of the Carrie prom sequence. They dance in ecstatic spirals—to Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away,” a onetime prom staple. Then, in a harrowing scene, Terri is devastated by the loss of Woody. He, realizing he is too far away on a space walk to return safely, and seeing that Terri is going to risk her life in an attempt to save him, removes his helmet and perishes. Like Carrie and Tommy, love’s two greatest fears have been realized for Terri and Woody (notice the echoes in the names). Terri is hurt by her husband and loses him.
If one is inclined to only view the surface of Mission to Mars, one will understandably find it disappointing. But it is a poignant film if looked at in the way I’m suggesting. The opening barbecue sequence makes no sense if taken literally. No space program would expose its astronauts to such a germ factory on the eve of an expedition. But the scene sets up themes of love and loss that the film will be exploring and culminates in the child’s sandbox scene.
McConnell is looking at the play equipment and tiny footprints in the sand and thinking about his wife and the life and kids he might have had with her. Cut to a footprint that we first perceive to be in the sandbox before realizing it is on the surface of Mars. What a great cinematic moment!