If it had been made earlier–even with the same flawed script–Mission to Mars would probably have been more successful. Many of its failings relate to the CG special effects. Stephen H. Burum is incompetent at lighting them, but they also bring an artificiality to the film’s tensest sequences. So, while Ennio Morricone might have a fantastic piece of music for a suspense sequence and De Palma might be directing it fine, it doesn’t work out right because of the CG and Burum’s ineptness.
Mars has a lot more problems–Connie Nielsen being one of the bigger ones, the plot, De Palma’s inability to create a transcendent scene (it’s more literal than a grade school documentary about helium balloons), some other terrible supporting performances–but there are a lot of strengths. At the center of the picture are Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle as three NASA buddies. All of them are fantastic. Even with Sinise inexplicably wearing eyeliner. His hairpiece, while awful looking, is more understandable.
And the film does have a certain amount of earnestness and general wonderment. It takes De Palma about a half hour before he lets the film have that wonderment, which is a poor choice since he’s already taken it to Mars once without any grandeur. It’s a gee whiz adventure picture from someone who doesn’t know how to feel gee whiz.
Jerry O’Connell is good; otherwise, the supporting cast is lousy.
Mars fails, but does so very unfortunately and very interestingly.