Refusing to accept the theory that everybody’s tired of space movies, Brian De Palma is betting the farm on Mission to Mars . I found this homage to Stanley Kubrick and the unsolvable riddles of 2001: A Space Odyssey a strange and boring melange of 50′s outer-space sagas, Star Trek and metaphysical sci-fi twaddle. In short, it’s the kind of movie you think you’ve seen before, and undoubtedly have. It could bring back drive-ins.
Set in the year 2020, it chronicles the first NASA launch to the red planet. When Don Cheadle’s character and his crew arrive, Mars looks disappointingly like Utah. Then violent surges of power resembling earthquakes in Mexico suck everyone into a gaping hole, leaving Mr. Cheadle’s character as the sole survivor. Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen and Jerry O’Connell play the astronauts who head the rescue mission, and most of the dialogue consists of command orders like “Count down for orbital insertion proximity alert!” The second missile is in trouble before it even lands on Mars when the rescue craft misses the landing pad and crashes, leaving the crew without water, oxygen or fuel, and there is one long, tense sequence in which one of the space jockeys drifts into gravity while the others desperately try to pull him back into the landing nodule with what looks like a pressurized fishing reel. Eventually, they all end up at that same weird face in the sand that signals the existence of life on Mars. “I didn’t come 100 million miles just to turn back in the last 10 feet,” says Mr. Sinise’s heroic character.
Who lives and who dies and who stays and who returns home in time for reruns of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is for you to find out. Frankly, with all of its control panels, computer screens, digitally created storms and internal food-source greenhouses, the whole movie had the same effect on me as a futuristic science ride at Disney World. Mr. Sinise and Mr. Robbins couldn’t give an insincere performance if you held a gun to their heads, and in a film that is really not about acting, the other actors cope bravely with material that is not only indigent but highly derivative. It’s in the philosophical mumbo-jumbo at the end that the film really turns into a head scratcher.
If you see Mission to Mars , you’ll understand what I mean when I say the movie, in the long haul, means three things: There is no beginning and no end, the universe is an ever-continuing series of links into eternity, and you should never underestimate the diverse, functional and lifesaving uses of Dr Pepper.
Midler, Shandling, Minus the Laughs
Two benign comedies fill the rest of the paltry movie menu, and neither of them leaves you laughing. At the bottom of the slag heap there’s an insulting trailer-trash fiasco called Drowning Mona , about an absurdly grotesque Dogpatch where everybody in town hates Bette Midler. (They must have seen her as Jacqueline Susann.) In the worst role of her career, the wild talents of this misguided clown are sorely wasted as Mona, meanest woman in town and matriarch of a house of freaks. Mona bashes her philandering husband Phil (William Fichtner) with an iron frying pan, chops off her mentally challenged son Phil’s arm with a meat cleaver, and wreaks havoc on everyone else within screaming distance. They all drive Yugos, those dud cars from Yugoslavia. In fact, the awful town they inhabit was once the testing site for Yugos. Even the cops drive Yugos. These are the jokes.
Anyway, in the first scene, the vile, obnoxious Mona drives her Yugo off a cliff, crashes into a river and dies. When nobody shows up at Mona’s wake, Cubby the Custom Casket Maker says, “I’ve seen people more upset over losing change in a candy machine.” When a folk-singing lesbian auto mechanic finds the brake lines cut on Mona’s Yugo, the police chief (Danny DeVito) suspects foul play. The rest of this tortured potboiler combines outrageous elements of There’s Something About Mary with themes, plots and people from the dark, quirky films of the Coen brothers-all to no avail. Everyone in town is a murder suspect with a motive, including Mona’s moronic son with one hand (Marcus Thomas), his best friend Bobby, the business partner in a landscaping business (Casey Affleck) whose headlights have been smashed by Mona’s golf clubs, Bobby’s pregnant girlfriend Ellen (Neve Campbell) who is also the police chief’s daughter, and Mona’s gross, henpecked husband Phil, who has been sleeping with a chain-smoking waitress from the local diner (Jamie Lee Curtis).
The tedious script by Peter Steinfeld and the paralyzing direction by Nick Gomez turn what might have been an offbeat murder mystery into a lame excuse to satirize country bumpkins. The murder itself is nothing more than a red herring; in the end, everything falls apart with such crashing boredom you won’t much care whodunit or why as long as you never have to hear one more word about Drowning Mona . Bette Midler has been quoted as saying, “It was just a job.” Surely playing a braying, squinchy-faced second fiddle to a Yugoslavian compact car is not the way to solve the unemployment problem, even in Hollywood.
Big talents can afford the luxury of an occasional benign stinker (there’s that word “benign” again) but what ever could Mike Nichols have been thinking of when he took on an outright disaster like What Planet Are You From? Even on a bad day, this acclaimed director knows a rotten script when he reads one. Maybe it’s a tax deduction. In this idiotic spin on the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus idea, an alien planet of clones with blocked emotions and no reproductive organs sends one of its robots to Earth to impregnate a woman and return with the baby so the planet can rule the solar system. While nobody bothers to explain how this ploy will work, the robot selected for the task is Garry Shandling, star of the TV sitcom The Larry Sanders Show , looking for new fame on something larger than a living room screen.
Equipped with a detachable, battery-operated penis and all the expressiveness of the ossified man in a carnival sideshow, he lands in Phoenix posing as a big banking kahuna from Seattle and discovers it’s not as easy to get laid as his adviser (Ben Kingsley) predicted. American women worry about things like self-value, sex before marriage, equal opportunity relationships and condoms. Undeterred, the alien attacks his job with blundering gusto and one recurring gag-every time he gets close to a woman, his prosthetic member produces humming “Twilight Zone” sounds emanating from his crotch. Then he meets Annette Bening at an A.A. meeting and his fly buzzes at first sight. She has only one catch: Marriage is a first priority. “You’re marrying a woman you’ve never had sex with?” groans the office cad (Greg Kinnear). “Are you insane? Didn’t you ever see The Crying Game ?” That’s about as funny as it gets.
The clichés run rampant. When the big deed is done and Ms. Bening has 126 orgasms, it’s accompanied by the dancing fountains spewing geysers in Vegas. So sad. Couldn’t Mr. Nichols manage to resist the oldest, most hackneyed sight gag in the book? The desperate attempts to get Ms. Bening pregnant and the continual failures to do so are as strangely unamusing as the stoic look on Mr. Shandling’s face, although the charming and gifted actress does manage to milk some humor from her role as a hysterical real estate agent. (On the heels of American Beauty , this is what aging satirists on Comedy Central call an in-joke.)
By the time the alien starts feeling things humans feel-jealousy, lust, revenge, competitiveness, tenderness, affection-I started feeling I’d been down this intergalactic Milky Way before. By the time the newlyweds start arguing about which planet to live on (they opt for commuting) you wonder if they use alarm clocks out in Hollywood or just walk to script conferences in their sleep. Pathetic, pointless and dumbfounding. Not to mention “benign.” This word is a cause for joy in a hospital. It’s a cause for weeping in a motion picture.
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