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Mission to Mars

There are lots of bad sci-fi movies. But few in recent history are as hilariously cheesy as Brian De Palma's big budget disaster "Mission to Mars."

Featuring a high-powered director and an A-list cast, the film not only fails to blast off, but also unwittingly sets its afterburners for an overblown B-movie abyss.

The lazy script (by three writers, no less) fashions together every cliche from "Apollo 13," "Contact," "The Abyss" and countless other genre benchmarks and serves them up as if no one's ever seen the monoliths in "2001: A Space Odyssey." At one point, a character actually says with a straight face, "They are us. We are them."

In an opening sequence lifted right from "Apollo 13," several astronauts gather together on Earth to celebrate another voyage into the unknown. "Apollo's" Gary Sinise again plays the shafted co-pilot role, cast as the too-traumatized widower Jim McConnell.

The only difference from "Apollo" (besides it not being based on a real experience) is the destination point. Playing substitute flyer Luke Graham, "Boogie Nights'" Don Cheadle leads an ill-fated voyage to the mighty Red Planet.

Once on Mars, the four-man crew travels around in a dune buggy that looks a lot like a movie model effect and frets over what to do about a massive structure found under the dirt. They quickly make the wrong decision to scan it with radars, and most of them end up being sucked to death by a dust devil resembling that alien water funnel in "The Abyss."

As quick as their counterparts at "Apollo's" mission control, McConnell, Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), his wife Terri (Connie Nielsen) and scientist Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell) debate the various plans of rescue. Moments later (one year in movie time), they've nearly arrived at Mars, grinning at the good time they've made and circling around their centrifugal spaceship a la "2001," be-bopping all the while in tune to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away."

An "Armageddon"-like crisis strikes as they try to unsuccessfully enter into the planet's orbit. A breach in the hull of their craft causes the rockets to go ka-plooey as Blake attempts to maintain order by muttering the 'ole reliable, "OK, people, let's work the problem."

They do manage a risky crash landing worthy of a Tom Hanks flick, but not without sacrificing one of their beloved crewmembers. By the time they reach base camp, they're not sure what to think of sole survivor Graham, who's grown a bit long in the tooth and can't stop spouting mumbo jumbo about something extra-terrestrial underneath the mound.

Because the screenwriters figure it's been a while since the release of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (although maybe not long enough since "Contact" and "The Abyss"), the rescuers decide to investigate before they venture back to Earth. Inside what looks like a computer-generated face similar to the stony facades on Easter Island, the Mars landers discover something ... that won't surprise anyone who's seen the aforementioned movies above.

It might be asking too much for this sort of encounter to reveal anything new. But the problem isn't the "Mission to Mars" ending. It's all the hokum that precedes it. Granted, the horrendous, over-the-top score by Ennio Morricone helps bludgeon the film's cause. But the phoned-in performances from stalwarts Sinise, who looks like he's taken too much Nyquil, and Robbins, too happy to be earning an easy paycheck, are as strange as the movie's aliens.

The top-notch cast usually would be a reason to see this space filler. Here, it serves to bring all of them down a peg or two.

De Palma, who maligned Nicolas Cage in the god-awful "Snake Eyes" and didn't do too much for Tom Cruise's acting chops in "Mission Impossible," continues his streak. Cheadle doesn't sound too credible babbling on about space technology, but Nielsen does a bad imitation of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in full "Abyss" pining mode. And O'Connell, notwithstanding his background in the sci-fi series "Sliders," is a little too eager playing a daffy guy who makes DNA models out of M&M's.

If not for its major league budget and players, "Mission to Mars" would go down in flames as cornball, direct to video fare. As it stands, it's first-class, galactic howler material that will have audiences slapping themselves silly for the wrong reasons.

* MPAA rating: PG, for sci-fi violence and mild language

"Mission to Mars"

Gary Sinise

Tim Robbins

Don Cheadle

Jerry O'Connell

Connie Nielsen

Touchstone Pictures presents a Jacobson Co. production, released by Buena Vista Pictures. Director Brian De Palma. Producer Tom Jacobson. Executive producer Sam Mercer. Screenplay Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost. Story by Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas and John Thomas. Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes.