Mission to Mars, 2000. Directed by Brian De Palma. Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle, Carrie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, Tim Robbins.

One of these days, filmmakers are going to realize that human exploration and colonization of space is in itself interesting. Any undertaking so vast and so ambitious is surely packed with human drama. The potential for epic filmmaking is there for the taking. For a while, Mission to Mars seems to understand this. Oh, the characters are all cardboard cutouts and the dialogue is uniformly bad, but the science is not obviously wrong for most of the movie: the hardware is certainly plausible and interesting to look at and the characters explore many of the possibilities of life in zero gravity. Some of the real dangers of spaceflight are represented, too, in the form of a micro-meteor storm and the necessity to match velocities exactly. Director Brian De Palma stages these sequences with cunning and style, wringing every last iota of suspense out of them. But it all falls apart in the last third of the movie.

Because Hollywood doesn't know that the colonization of space is intrinsically interesting on its own, it appends a "first contact" story at the end of Mission to Mars. Up to this point, the movie has been particularly good-looking. The special effects are excellent--until we are shown the aliens. The aliens look exactly like what they are: computer generated imagery. The treacly "sense of wonder" the film tries to instill during this episode is forced. It doesn't ring true and it torpedoes everything that came before it, a sin compounded by the fact that it occurs after the audience has started to look a watches. Mission to Mars is too long (2 hours and 45 minutes!!)  and too dippy to work. One wonders, give how De Palma treats certain elements of the screenplay, if this is the film the director signed on to make in the first place. Somehow, I doubt it.