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Friday, December 6, 2013
Critics At Large's Steve Vineberg revisted Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars a couple of weeks ago for an ongoing series called "Neglected Gems." "When I saw Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars in 2000 with a heckling, pre-release audience, I didn’t think much of it," begins Vineberg. "A year later, though, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria screened it on a double bill with The Fury as part of a month-long De Palma retrospective, and a group of former students who took me out there to see The Fury persuaded me to stay and take a second look at Mission to Mars. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the two movies that made me look at Mission to Mars with new eyes, but the second time around I fell in love with it. The Fury has an almost insane narrative, but it’s a work of such visual inventiveness and emotional potency that, if you connect with it, the story is no obstacle; its excesses serve the movie just as equally ridiculous stories serve Jacobean tragedies and nineteenth-century operas. And though Mission to Mars has a much simpler silly plot, it too is a kind of outline – you might say a metaphor – for De Palma’s ideas about the tension between technology and humanity and the nature of loss, his two favorite subjects."

After describing the plot of Mission To Mars, Vineberg continues, "The key to gaining access to the face in the sand, it turns out, is the crew’s ability to furnish proof that they’re human. Mission to Mars is a space story, but it’s the anti-2001: A Space Odyssey. In De Palma’s Blow Out, the hero (John Travolta) keeps making the mistake of putting his faith in technology; so, on a smaller scale, does the teenage boy (Keith Gordon) in Dressed to Kill who’s trying to track down his mother’s killer. For these characters, technology is at best inadequate to achieve the (human, emotional) ends they want to put it at the service of; at worst it backfires and results in the deaths of the people they care about. By the time Mission to Mars takes place, technology is inescapably the ruling force, but De Palma uses the fact of all this technology, ironically, as a way of focusing on the human dilemmas that beset the people who have to deal with its inadequacy and its capacity for bringing disaster. Science has found a way for the astronauts to float through space without the benefit of a space capsule, but only for limited amounts of time, i.e., only as long as the oxygen in the tanks strapped to their backs holds out. When Woody is unable to harness the drifting capsule after the rest of the spaceship has crashed, he finds he hasn’t enough oxygen left to return to his companions. Terri insists she should float out to rescue him – a futile act that would end up killing both of them. So Woody pulls off his helmet and meets the lethal pressure of Mars’s atmosphere head-on, an act of self-sacrifice that comes out of his love for his wife. The separation of husband and wife plays off one of the movie’s most ecstatic visual moments, when they dance together to a Motown tune in the gravity-free atmosphere of the spaceship en route to Mars. But De Palma fans will also recognize his trademark image – the character who watches in helpless anguish while someone, usually a loved one, is destroyed before his or her eyes – from The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Casualties of War and Mission: Impossible. Woody’s demise may be the most strangely poetic version yet of a motif that amounts to an obsession: Robbins’s face turns, magnificently, to cracked granite.

"The tragedy that divides Woody and Terri echoes, of course, the loss of Jim’s wife Maggie, whom we see only once, in a video (played, touchingly, by Kim Delaney) their friends prepared when they were chosen to helm the Mars mission. Jim watches it on a monitor in the ship when he winds up traveling there without her. It’s a double-time frame sequence – the video contains images from this joyous time interspersed with earlier ones from the McConnells’ wedding. I might not have made this connection had I not just rewatched The Fury, but the visual dynamic of an image embedded within another image and two sets of observers recalls the scenes in that movie where Amy Irving is caught in a psychic link with a besieged Andrew Stevens while someone else – who can’t see what she sees – tries to communicate with her. This is a visual notion with amazing emotional resonance for these stories of loss. In The Fury, Irving’s Gillian longs to meet the boy who shares her freakish psychic gifts; her separation from him, except in these imperiled visions she has no power to alter, underscores her isolation from the rest of the world, from the people she loves who don’t share her abilities. And when she finally does get close to him, it’s too late: he’s already destroyed. The video that brings Jim’s wife back to him, if only for a few minutes, is a trick of technology that is finally just a reminder of the uncrossable distance between them. He can replay this moment of happiness and relive not only his loss but also his bafflement: here they are at the peak of their lives together, anticipating a future that, though neither knows it, will never come to pass. In the video Maggie makes a toast to them standing at the threshold of a new world, but mere months later she was sick and he stood on the threshold of life and death, watching the most important person in his life fading away from him. De Palma gets at this idea in another way, too. The transmissions the first Mars crew sends back to earth have a twenty-minute delay. Back at home, Jim and the others watch as Luke and his companions, full of good humor and optimism, light a candle in a slab of cake to honor Jim’s birthday before setting out across the sand to explore the structure. The NASA observers have no way of knowing that even while they’re watching this transmission, twenty minutes after Luke sends it, his crew is being torn apart."

(Thanks to Hugh!)

Posted by Geoff at 11:59 PM CST
Updated: Saturday, December 7, 2013 12:07 AM CST
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Sunday, October 6, 2013
Armond White at City Arts has posted his review of Alfonsso Cuaron's Gravity, and is sour on what he sees as Cuaron's "glib cynicism," left over from the director's Children Of Men, unearned Kubrickian sense of "intellectual contemplation and wonder" (in Gravity's opening-image evocation of 2001: A Space Odyssey), and Cuaron's "fashionable" anti-religious "sop to the hipster market". White then contrasts Gravity with Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars and Walter Hill's Supernova:

Too bad Gravity’s fanboy audience is conveniently ignorant of richer space dramas like Walter Hill’s sexy-scary Supernova and Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars (remember that astoundingly witty Ennio Morricone score?) which entertainingly combined psychological and visionary pondering with sci-fi agape. Hill advanced the genre with tense, erotic, metaphysical characterizations. Nothing in Gravity compares to Mission to Mars’ extraordinary orchestration of passion and dread among a team of astronauts attempting to forge a lifeline in outer space. DePalma created an unforgettable, breathtaking sequence of love and loss. His great tragic humanism was more powerful than Cuaron’s tepid “hope.”

Posted by Geoff at 11:59 AM CDT
Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 12:01 PM CDT
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Thursday, October 3, 2013
Writing from the Venice Film Festival last month, Stephanie Zacharek posted a review of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity for the Phoenix New Times, calling Cuaron "one of our greatest living directors." Zacharek states, "I'm thoroughly sick of 3D movies and I would have been happy to never have to look at one again. But I wasn't prepared for the way Cuarón uses it to explore both wonder and despair, in Gravity. Forget stretched-out blue people, Peter Max-colored flora and fauna, and explosions comin' at you: This is what 3D was made for."

Zacharek compares Gravity to Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars, as well as to Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, the latter of which she calls "superb." Here are the last three paragraphs from her review:

Gravity is both lyrical and terrifying, and sometimes Cuarón even merges the two, sending us into free fall along with his characters. No space movie arises from a vacuum, and the obvious comparative pulse points for this one include The Right Stuff and Brian De Palma's sorely underloved Mission to Mars. The Right Stuff isn't so much about space as about the space program, but Cuarón — who co-wrote the script with Jonés Cuarón, his son — captures the mingling of duty and curiosity that motivates any human being who actually makes it into space. And Cuarén, just as De Palma was, is alive to the empty-full spectacle of space and to the workaday poetry of the words astronauts use to describe it. At the time Mission to Mars was released, detractors made fun of the allegedly stiff dialogue. But have you ever heard astronauts — who are usually men of science, not Iowa Workshop grads — speak when they get that first long-distance view of planet Earth as a glowing orb? They grab for the simplest words, which are often the best...

Cuarón is even more of a romantic than De Palma, if such a thing is possible. He finds all kinds of ways to link survival in space with life on Earth. There, as here, anyone might have reason to feel loneliness, despair, fear, or exaltation, and homesickness — for a place, a person, a planet — is universal. Incidentally, the first person who tries to tell me Gravity is "unrealistic" or "implausible" is going to get a mock-Vulcan salute and a kick in the pants.

Given the amount of balderdash we have to swallow just to get through a typical summer movie season, taking a small leap of faith and imagination with Cuarón should hardly be a problem. Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing.


The New Zealand Herald's Dominic Corry also brings up Mission To Mars in his review of Gravity:

[Cuarón's] Children of Men famously features a bravura action sequence during which the camera maintains a single shot for almost four minutes without cutting. It's one of the coolest action scenes in cinema history, and when word emerged that Cuarón would be employing similar techniques in Gravity, film fans the world over rubbed their hands together in delight. Gravity isn't all long tracking-shots, but they make up the majority of the film, and enhance the tension to no end.

One of cinema's biggest proponents of the extremely long tracking shot is Brian De Palma, who I wrote about last week. Long tracking shots are a cool idea, but can be very difficult to pull-off without calling attention to the filmmaking. Hitchcock was a fan too; as was Robert Altman; but De Palma's voyeuristic style always best suited the technique in my mind - until Children of Men came along, that is.

Brian De Palma was also behind a widely-derided (but secretly awesome) film which now stands as a noteworthy antecedent to Gravity - 2000's Mission To Mars.

There's a full-on sequence near the beginning of the film which involves a space walk and a desperate attempt to grab on to a satellite. When details about Gravity started emerging, I hoped that it would be a movie-length version of this scene. And it is. In the best possible way.


Posted by Geoff at 1:19 AM CDT
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2013 1:20 AM CDT
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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Posted by Geoff at 8:01 PM CDT
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Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek finds Ridley Scott's Prometheus a bit too tasteful, overcomplicated, and ultimately lackluster. "You can practically hear Prometheus groaning under the weight of its ambitions," she muses disappointedly, adding, "it’s a far cry from the sound Scott was going for, the music of the celestial spheres." Her review includes some spoilers, but none in the following excerpt, in which she compares Prometheus to Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars...

Scott is trying to make sure Prometheus is about something, and his ideals may have distracted him from the more prosaic task of just getting on with the storytelling. When Brian De Palma presented, with Mission to Mars, a much more passionate, and more narratively sound, version of this sort of interplanetary spiritual idealism, it was treated as a “bad” science fiction movie. Prometheus, on the other hand, is tasteful even in the midst of all its squirm-inducing gross-outs, and that’s a liability: It’s impossible to have tasteful passion.

Meanwhile, De Palma a la Mod reader Sergio posted on another thread: "I just saw Prometheus and it really is a lot like Mission To Mars, and not just because they are both channelling Kubrick's 2001. Most of the action beats and story beats are pretty much the same, as is the subtext of the movie, too, about aliens seeding earth. There's even a 'Face' ..."

Posted by Geoff at 6:39 PM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, June 6, 2012 12:21 AM CDT
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Okay, so it's been a week since I promised the decade list summaries, but here they come, beginning with this post about Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars, which several critics and bloggers fondly remembered as they recalled the first decade of the new millenium. Here are the lists and links...

Benjamin Strong, The L Magazine
Regarding the year 2000, Strong wrote, "The Oscar-winning Best Picture may have been Ridley Scott's Gladiator, with its turgid, fake-looking battles inside a computer generated Coliseum. But in terms of special effects and pure movie spectacle, late-breaking science fiction pictures like Transformers or Avatar still can't hold a candle to Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars, 2000's most woefully overlooked picture, and one of the most beautiful-looking outer space movies ever made."

Also at the L Magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz put together an "End-of-Decade Clip Party" called We Love the Aughties, the first part of which included a scene from Mission To Mars.

Ryan Kelly, Medfly Quarantine
Kelly discusses Mission To Mars in his chronological list of "the movies that mattered most" to him during the decade in question. "For me, the first great movie of the decade, and also among its most reviled, though why I'm not exactly sure. But it's a wild, bold, and beautiful take on our place in the Universe, and the miracle and wonder of existence --- simultaneously sophisticated and pulpy." (There is more discussion of Mission To Mars in the comments section of Kelly's post.)

Rob Humanick, Slant Magazine
The Slant Staff placed Mission To Mars at number 80 on its list of the 100 best films of the decade. Of the film, Humanick wrote, "An argumentative line in the sand for what cinema means, Mission to Mars might be the greatest '50s sci-fi film ever, even if came half a century late. 2001 by way of irony-deprived B-movie euphoria, this wide-eyed space odyssey subverts big budget expectations with bigger feelings, actively and eagerly engaging one with expressionist emotion. Like Kubrick's masterpiece, Mars takes comfort in the probability of life elsewhere but more profoundly does it appreciate what human life means to itself. The film ponders and posits, elevating those thoughts to religious wonder. Where did we come from? We may never know, but we can always dance the night away." In the comments section, "dbe2101" wrote that "Mission to Mars is neither a good film nor a watchable one," which prompted Humanick to reply: "Well, dbe2101, gonna have to disagree with you... I for one am glad to be in the purported minority—not loving Mission to Mars seems like not loving life. But obviously, it's not that simple."

Chris Stangl, The Exploding Kinetoscope
Stangl went year-by-year as he began to build a list of 100 memorable films from the decade, placing Mission To Mars at number 6 for the year 2000. Stangl wrote:

"'Drifting through eternity will ruin your whole day.' So goes some wisdom from Brian De Palma’s marvelous spaceman thriller. Mission to Mars is practically a humanist retort to 2001: A Space Odyssey, its climactic moments dedicated to a pretty and inspiring filmstrip on biological evolution on Earth. Containing something to bewilder or sour nearly ever viewer, even the film’s final statement of wonder is marred by one badly designed transitional era CG alien effect. But all De Palma films have a little of this wonder, and no small amount of dread, as starry-eyed humans are ricocheted around a cosmic pool table along networks too daft to make sense of, dragged by forces they cannot see. Mission does, in its finale, marvel at nature, but until then it is variously spooked and awe-struck.

"The climax of physical action occurs in the black void, of course, stranded between heaven and earth (well... between spaceship and Mars), safe home and unknown adventure, chilly womb and blazing death. The suspense device is of properly calibrating jet pack thrusters and conserving limited fuel supplies; the moral questions are of the same stuff: applied force, inertia, impossible choice and aiming carefully while navigating through space.

"One zero G setpiece alone sees the director pushing the cinematic apparatus’ ability to organize space and time to a new plane: it is a De Palma Future. As the ship is about to enter orbit around Mars, a micrometeorite barrage perforates the hull, one space suit helmet, and one astronaut’s hand: bam, bam, bam, these are the crises in poetic simplicity, tiny rocks hurtling through infinity just to fuck up four heroes. The ensuing repair effort is a suspense scene of elaborate construction without parallel... except in the De Palma canon. Beginning with the image of atomized blood globules swirling lazily about the pristine ship, the sequence expands and flows into airless abstract 3D museum diorama. As four crewmembers undertake separate tasks in different locations and the atmosphere rapidly suctions out of the craft, their work unites the action, a seamless vignette about punctured seams. The source of the first leak is detected via the floating blood droplets, the second by a serendipitous packet of Dr. Pepper. The pieces and particles flocking in one direction to create a whole, the scene snakes through space, inside and outside, perfectly oriented in a place where up and down do not apply and time is the crucial dimension. Linked in purpose, discrete no longer, like the chromosomes sent to a blue planet from a red one, like the astronaut’s DNA model built of M&M’s, like the Dr. Pepper and the blood, like the clouds of Martian dust. Like pictures threaded in sequence, moving in time together to tell a story."

Eugene Novikov, Cinematical
Novikov listed his favorite science fiction films of the decade, and included Mission To Mars and Lawrence Kasdan's Dreamcatcher under the heading, "Most Underappreciated," writing, "I will admit that my uncommon patience with De Palma's visual style and his starry-eyed desire to ape Kubrick may have contributed to my appreciation of Mission to Mars. Dreamcatcher I thought was mistreated -- the tonal shifts and occasional plunges into goofiness seemed like shrewd choices rather than mistakes to me. But I'm probably not going to convince anyone about either of these."

Tiago Costa, Claquete
After posting his top 20 of the decade in order of preference, Costa listed "the rest in any order"-- but that list begins with Mission To Mars.

Tom, I Hate Popcorn
Finally, in a blog post that has disappeared since it was posted December 24, 2009, Tom placed Mission To Mars at number 24 on his list of the 25 best films of the decade. I will post Tom's full list in the Femme Fatale post, either today or tomorrow.

Posted by Geoff at 4:43 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 4:52 PM CST
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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere posted a bit about Brian De Palma's Carrie Tuesday night, saying that he was "half taken and half irked" when he originally saw the film in 1976. Wells writes that the ending, with the hand jumping up out of the grave, "made me jump out of my seat, and I was thereafter sold on the idea of DePalma being a kind of mad genius." Wells then continues:

I was gradually divested of this view in subsequent years, sad to say. Actually by The Fury, which was only two years later. To me De Palma was at his craftiest and most diabolical in Greetings, Hi, Mom, Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie. Bit by bit and more and more, everything post-Carrie was one kind of problem or another (except for Scarface).

Wells' readers then chimed in throughout the next day and beyond, with widely differing views on De Palma's oeuvre. Everybody has their favorites, and most seemed to agree that there was something extraordinary in every De Palma film, whether they liked the entire film or not. There were staunch defenders of Femme Fatale, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, and Carlito's Way. Mission: Impossible was also given props, with one commenter suggesting that the film will age quite gracefully throughout the coming years. A vague consensus seemed to emerge that De Palma's two most recent films, The Black Dahlia and Redacted, form a combined letdown, although The Black Dahlia also found its defenders. The most widely derided movie in the comments, though, seemed to be Mission To Mars, although that film had its defenders, as well, including this gem of a decscription from Sean: "It's a creation myth story where handsome actors [go] and discover that the face on Mars is actually an IMAX theatre -- sounds like De Palma to me."

Posted by Geoff at 1:55 PM CST
Updated: Thursday, December 3, 2009 2:00 PM CST
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Thursday, June 18, 2009
From a University of Colorado press release yesterday: A University of Colorado at Boulder research team has discovered the first definitive evidence of shorelines on Mars, an indication of a deep, ancient lake there and a finding with implications for the discovery of past life on the Red Planet.

Estimated to be more than 3 billion years old, the lake appears to have covered as much as 80 square miles and was up to 1,500 feet deep -- roughly the equivalent of Lake Champlain bordering the United States and Canada, said Gaetano Di Achille, who led the study. The shoreline evidence, found along a broad delta, included a series of alternating ridges and troughs thought to be surviving remnants of beach deposits.

"This is the first unambiguous evidence of shorelines on the surface of Mars," said Di Achille. "The identification of the shorelines and accompanying geological evidence allows us to calculate the size and volume of the lake, which appears to have formed about 3.4 billion years ago"...

...The deltas adjacent to the lake are of high interest to planetary scientists because deltas on Earth rapidly bury organic carbon and other biomarkers of life, according to CU-Boulder Assistant Professor [Brian] Hynek. Most astrobiologists believe any present indications of life on Mars will be discovered in the form of subterranean microorganisms.

But in the past, lakes on Mars would have provided cozy surface habitats rich in nutrients for such microbes, Hynek said.

Posted by Geoff at 11:59 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, June 19, 2009 12:03 AM CDT
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Thursday, May 21, 2009
While I definitely don't agree with his statement that Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars is "not worth seeing," Christopher Campbell's comparison of the alien in that film to the blood-soaked Carrie in De Palma's earlier film is somewhat inspired:

Even if the Flintstones were around earlier than we thought, this wouldn’t necessarily prove Creationists right. In Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars there is another sort of missing link that people tend to dismiss along with the theory that aliens impregnated the “virgin” Mary. This is the link between life on Earth and prior life, from elsewhere, which seeded our planet. The Martian at the end of the movie (sorry if this is a spoiler — the movie isn’t worth seeing anyway), who isn’t so much our ancestor as our trillionth cousin thrice removed, is kind of creepy but also kind of sexy in a blood-soaked Sissy Spacek sort of way (this is the director of Carrie).

Posted by Geoff at 12:00 AM CDT
Updated: Thursday, May 21, 2009 1:45 AM CDT
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Friday, August 1, 2008
NASA announced yesterday that lab tests aboard its Phoenix Mars Lander have concluded that a soil sample taken from the surface of Mars does indeed contain water. The "surprising" results so far have led NASA to extend the spacecraft's mission through September 30th. Meanwhile, Pop Culture Examiner Dominic Patten has sarcastically suggested that Hollywood will soon jump on this new clue to life on Mars. "Of course," Patten writes, "you could just get the jump on everyone and rent Brian De Palma's 2000 flick Mission to Mars tonight." Doesn't sound like a bad idea...

Posted by Geoff at 11:19 AM CDT
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