De Palma is out in theaters now (you can buy your tickets here). In honor of the documentary's legendary subject, we're kicking off a week-long look at the director's classic - and not so classic - films.
Brian De Palma is rarely an optimistic artist. Often, his movies reimagine both personal and public tragedies as juicy pulp. Dressed to Kill repurposes his self-described “first film” (photographs in which he caught his philandering surgeon father in the act) into a horror picture about a young science nerd (Keith Gordon, superficially playing a teenage BDP) tracking down a brutal butcher who sliced his own mother to ribbons. Blow Out – arguably the director’s most momentous masterpiece – dreams up a Liberty Day political assassination that even his beloved medium cannot prevent. Scarface spins the cinema of Howard Hawks into a cautionary tale of masculine impotency and Napoleonic overcompensation. None of these movies work to see the good in De Palma’s fellow man; instead they present a misanthropic portrait of civilization, where even the most pure at heart are left forever scarred by cross-dressing madmen and shadowy power players.
Mission to Mars is the glaring anomaly in the director’s filmography, cut from a cloth that seems more suited to the output of De Palma’s pal, Steven Spielberg. It’s a movie that completely jettisons the filmmaker’s usual pessimism; replacing it with a honeyed hopefulness that looks to the stars in order to discover wonder beyond our blue sphere. Taking a page from Stanley Kubrick (who Spielberg not only credited as a major influence, but adapted with AI: Artificial Intelligence), De Palma pays visual homage to the master’s 2001 (the giant floating centrifuge, an alien spacecraft with a totally white interior), and borrows key themes from the groundbreaking science-fiction masterwork. The solitude of space is alleviated by human contact. At the furthest reaches of the galaxy, a team of adventurers not only discover signs of intelligent life, but that all forms are connected on a very basic, soulful level. Yes, the picture becomes incredibly saccharine at points, but there’s something to be said about one of our all-time great horror directors making a movie that unironically asks the audience to overcome fear entirely and step with him into the vast unknown.
On the surface, Mission to Mars appears to be the ultimate sellout movie - an artist letting corporate culture mutate his idiosyncratic style to fit the poppy, conventional song they’re singing. Disney is Swan, and De Palma is Winslow Leach, trying to regain the big studio trust he earned with mega blockbuster Mission: Impossible, and somewhat squandered with the subsequent “one for me” Atlantic City Rashomon conspiracy thriller, Snake Eyes (which still stands as perhaps the director’s most undervalued title). From the opening – at a red, white, and blue All-American cookout – it’d be impossible to even tell BDP was behind the camera if it weren’t for the high angle follow shots perusing the private party (photographed by frequent collaborator Stephen H. Burum). The crew – comprised of American and Russian astronauts – includes Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, and Connie Nielsen, and each are introduced via dumps of wearisome, wooden expositional dialogue. An overly bubbly tone floats the scene, even as Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), the former mission pilot taken off assignment following the death of his wife, joins in on the comradery. De Palma’s always been better with actors than his reputation as a superb visual stylist suggests, but even he can’t make any of these early interactions seem natural, nor earned. Ground Control to Major Tom, we’re in for one hell of a bumpy ride.
Thankfully, once we smash cut to Mars and the team (led by Cheadle’s Luke Graham) is exploring the desolate red rock, De Palma is able to let his consuming love of widescreen communicate the vast loneliness of space. Later, his camera does one of its patented swirls while the explorers float above the atmosphere, revealing just how vast and uncharted our universe is. We’re still not completely trusting of the director’s newly lightened tendencies, but at least the style feels familiar, a minor reassurance via the auteur’s caméra-stylo. Just as the crew begins to encounter an unknown force that wreaks havoc on their mission (and, in reality, actually starts to own the danger of a true BDP joint), the director slyly cuts to the second crew, who have been dispatched to locate their seemingly doomed comrades. Jim has been convinced to captain this emergency operation, which loses a sense of immediacy once we realize they have six months to kill until they reach their target destination.
While it may seem like the ultimate betrayal of artistic instincts for De Palma to abandon what are shaping up to be the most suspenseful moments contained within Mission to Mars’ narrative, Jim and his crew’s six month voyage actually provides some of the most joyously playful moments of the director’s career. Free from the trappings of gravity, De Palma’s lens floats through the spacecraft with effortless buoyancy. And although he’s always been something of a blackly comic skeptic, De Palma also has a wildly affecting romantic streak that runs through his soul (see: Tommy’s gentleness at the prom in Carrie, or merely the way Jack looks at Sally with reckless adoration in Blow Out). In the film's most beautiful scene, Woody (Robbins), who moments earlier opposed the idea of dance lessons with Terri (Nielsen), throws Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away" on the stereo and begins to spin his wife around in Zero-G. Almost instantaneously, the entire mission and its grave implications (not to mention importance) dissolve as love thrives in an environment that usually rejects life itself. Yet the ardor is tinged by sadness, as Jim watches, his mind no doubt retreating to recollections of his deceased partner. Where the opening barbecue is all spelled out, clunky verbosity, here De Palma reveals just how heartbreaking a single cut can be. It’s a wonderful moment of pure, humanistic storytelling via visuals and Sinise’s subtle performance.
The back half of Mission to Mars is when De Palma returns to his suspense picture roots, but this time the mounting dread is utilized to create instances of emotional catharsis instead of mind-bending horror. One particularly distressing sequence finds four members of Jim’s crew abandoning ship after meteorites cause one of the engines to explode. Bravely floating through the cold chasm, Woody aims to try and reach a refueling module, but overshoots and flies outside the range of his friends. Devastated by the thought of watching her loved one die (continuing a De Palma motif of main characters enduring and being transformed by immense tragedy), Terri cuts her own tether in an ill-fated attempt to retrieve him. Woody realizes that his rescue is impossible and, instead of letting his wife perish, sacrifices himself so that she may return to the group unscathed. It’s yet another riveting set piece added to the filmmaker’s oeuvre, only the death at its climax is poignant instead of frightening. Melancholy poetics in outer space in the place of Eart- bound terror, the cosmos act as a stark backdrop for a character’s selfless passing.
Watching the movie over fifteen years since its initial release reveals how it predates one particular critical darling from another revered auteur. Much like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Mission to Mars posits that there’s a spiritual connection between all life that runs concurrently with the scientific theory of evolution. Once Jim and his crew encounter a rambling Graham, they discover the storm that wiped his mission out was controlled, and a viewer can only draw the conclusion that Martians will eventually be revealed as the originators of the freak sand squall. Yet De Palma again subverts his usual MO by having the astronauts encounter the Martians, who bestow knowledge, not violence, upon the human visitors. The creatures reveal that all life is connected via shared strands of DNA, not only on particular planets, but throughout the entirety of existence. The movie’s final moments are incredibly moving, as Jim is invited to come with the beings to further explore the outer limits of creation itself. This is a particularly heady finale for a presumed “Disney family adventure”, and again finds Brian De Palma establishing himself as the king of commercial rebellion. Along with his screenwriters Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost, he’s smuggled pathos and weight into a picture nobody would’ve expected to contain such elements, refusing to play the same song time and again for the money men at the Mouse House.
Much like his New Hollywood classmate, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma built a filmography out of narratives centered on notions of isolation and distrust. This is the same man who, just a few years earlier, crafted a potential franchise starter using his patented fetishes and philosophy that the government is out to betray even its most noble heroes. Yet by leaving his trademark skepticism behind and embracing an aura of wondrous exploration, De Palma delivered a motion picture that is rapturous and hopeful, reminding everyone sitting in the theater that they are unified instead of segregated. Sure, Mission to Mars may not be his very best film, but it glows in a way no other movie in his filmography dares. It’s a glittering beacon amidst a sea of darkness and despair, revealing a love for humankind that, for nearly forty years, was absent from the filmmaker’s artistic persona.