The Red and the Black

De Palma combines trigonometric genius and Spielbergian corniness in Mission to Mars.

Mission to Mars
Directed by Brian De Palma
Buena Vista

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Artisan Entertainment

In Mission to Mars, directed by Brian De Palma, an astronaut (Tim Robbins) drifts over the red planet—actually orange with greenish streaks, like a faded tartan—and says, “Hello, beautiful.” That’s what I felt like saying to the movie, one of the sleekest space operas ever made. But I’d have to add, unchivalrously, “Too bad you’re such an airhead.”

OK, the picture isn’t that vacuous. It’s just a letdown. The prospect of De Palma—the spatial-temporal wizard of modern suspense—on Mars made me feel like a 6-year-old waiting for the latest chapter of Flash Gordon. But Mission to Mars isn’t popcorn sci-fi. It’s square, stately, technobabble sci-fi with religioso undertones, and the closer it gets to its climactic revelation, the cornier and more Spielbergian it gets. De Palma—to his credit—doesn’t have the touch for woozy astro-uplift. He’s a wizard techie with a streak of flamboyant sadism; he’d sooner blow E.T. to bits than send him soaring heavenward. He does gorgeous work, but in Mission to Mars he’s only going through the motions. 

At least his designs (or more precisely, those of Ed Verreaux) are sharp and clean, with a Deco elegance. This Mars is a desert with its surfaces blown satin-smooth, and De Palma lulls you with wide vistas and David Lean-like tempos. Then he delivers a killer first catastrophe. When U.S. and Russian explorers, led by Don Cheadle, attempt to X-ray a subterranean metal slab, they inadvertently summon up—well, it’s hard to say what it is. Let’s call it a nebulous, sandwormy demon the size of a mountain with a gaping maw that sucks one guy in and spins him around so fast he flies apart. The nightmare ghastliness doesn’t gibe with the movie’s later, beatific visions: De Palma and his designers must have gotten so carried away with their bad-alien apocalypse that they forgot where their story was heading. But what a cool opening!

The rest of the picture focuses on the stalwart rescue team. Gary Sinise is in mourning for his wife and fellow astronaut, whose death kept him off the initial Mars mission. Now he begs his commander (Armin Mueller-Stahl) for a chance to recover what’s left of his mates. “Give me a plan by o eight hundred tomorrow,” says Mueller-Stahl. “You’ll have it by o six hundred,” says Sinise pithily. In his cabin, he watches videos of his dead wife (Kim Delaney), who reminds him that humans are meant to “stand on one world and reach out to the next one.” This prepares you for the idea that, dismembering sandworm demons notwithstanding, whatever’s on Mars has a mystical agenda: “Life reaches out to life,” explains the wife lifelessly. 

Best to talk about technique. De Palma is a bravura problem-solver, which is why he connects with these stolid, Right Stuff-style astronauts at all. He’s peerless at juggling four or five climaxes at once. In one sequence, the rescue team (Robbins, Sinise, Connie Nielsen, and Jerry O’Connell) tries to keep oxygen from getting sucked out of the capsule: Robbins bounces around in space plugging holes while Sinise labors to keep the cabin from depressurizing while O’Connell crashes and reboots the computer. Not even Hitchcock had such a blast with the higher mathematics of suspense. There’s a trigonometric genius in De Palma’s later work: Look at the sinuous tracking shots in Snake Eyes (1998) or the angle of the escalator in the Grand Central Station shootout in Carlito’s Way (1993). In Mission to Mars, De Palma has another nifty spatial variable: zero gravity, which means Stephen H. Burum’s camera can travel horizontally while the actors bob all over the frame and the walls revolve. The spinning capsule (which looks, from the outside, like a coffee-plunger-pot) is the setting for a romantic pas de deux between Robbins and Nielsen that’s one of the most lyrical space scenes ever filmed. Too bad the story brings De Palma crashing down to Earth. I mean Mars. 

I n Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, it’s fun to watch the maverick indie director Jim Jarmusch craft a Zen version of the sort of Grade-Z vigilante melodramas that show up on HBO at 3 in the morning. Would you have imagined a Jarmusch picture about a lone hit man (Forest Whitaker) who does a contract killing for the mob, which then capriciously takes out a contract on him? Or a Jarmusch climax in which the protagonist strolls into the Mafia kingpin’s mansion and blows away a horde of gangsters with mechanical, Steven Seagal-like precision? What a goof!

This being Jarmusch, the action is intercut with shots of mystical pigeons and tricked out with solemn quotations from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (superimposed on the screen). The samurai manual teaches Ghost Dog (Whitaker) to regard himself as a dead man and the world as a dream—which makes him the descendant of William Blake (Johnny Depp), the reluctant gunfighter mystic of Jarmusch’s hallucinatory DeadMan (1995). Ghost Dog is nowhere near as original as Dead Man—the most daring counterculture Western since McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and a resounding commercial flop. But it has its moments. It has an arresting hip-hop score (by RZA of Wu-Tang Clan) that miraculously connects—and reinforces—the hero’s vaporous relationship to the material world. And Whitaker, with those hooded, cloudy, misaligned eyes, makes Ghost Dog as soulful in his impassivity as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster.

The problem is that Jarmusch panders to his left-wing art-house audience the same way Clint Eastwood panders to his right-wing audience. The African-American hero is meant to be a pure, noble warrior in spite of the fact that he lives by murdering unarmed men. It’s easy to overlook that fact, though, since the only men he kills on screen are representatives of the vicious white patriarchy. Ghost Dog is largely a meditation on the death throes of that enfeebled ruling class. The Italian gangsters are either skeletal (Henry Silva, as the boss) or grotesquely obese, and they’re broke, too—hounded by creditors and living in houses that carry “For Sale” signs. (The real-estate company is called Alighieri Properties.) Still, there’s enough life in their arthritic bones to mow down innocent African-American bird-keepers and female cops and other threats to their dying white-male hold. Jarmusch can’t contain his hatred. He throws in a sequence in which Ghost Dog encounters a pair of cretinous hunters toting a dead bear—just so the hero can invoke Native American lore and shoot two white people on principle. At the end, a little African-American girl fingers his big gun and his samurai manual. Am I the only one who finds the substance of this movie repulsive?