There is a persistent rumour that Walt Disney Studios forced a name change on their 2012 science fiction epic John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter because they believed audiences were not interested in films about Mars. The supposed proof? The failure of their animated feature Mars Needs Moms (2011, with a US$39m gross on a US$150m budget), and the earlier failure of Mission to Mars (2000, with a slightly less embarrassing US$110m gross on a US$100m budget).
Mission to Mars, which is directed by Brian De Palma, can certainly be described as a failure. With a theatrical gross so close to its budget, it almost certainly lost Disney tens of millions of dollars. It was also pretty roundly savaged by critics and audiences alike. Re-watching the film after more than two decades does little to change this view either. Neither ahead of its time or escoteric enough to generate cult appeal, it sits now as a half-forgotten misfire best ignored on its cast and crew’s resumes. It was likely well on its way to be forgotten entirely, had Disney not added it to their growing back catalogue on streaming service Disney+.
In the year 2020, a human mission to Mars ends in catastrophic failure. A rescue team is assembled to make the months-long journey to the red planet, but upon arrival they discover an unexpected mystery on the planet’s surface and only one survivor.
Mission to Mars has palpable ambitions to rival 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s widely feted science fiction classic that brought an unprecedented scale and intelligence to its genre. That Mars fails to meet its goal is not in itself that embarrassing – it’s a lofty target for which to shoot – but the sheer depth of its failure beggars belief. The story is derivative, weak, and needlessly simplistic. By the end of the film, a glance back at what actually happened reveals the thinnest of narratives. Laid over the plot is some terribly stereotypical dialogue. On top of everything else, the film’s visual effects cast a plasticky and cheap-looking sheen over everything.
Director Brian De Palma knew all of this going in: the film’s original director walked off the set over budget disagreements, and by the time De Palma agreed to act as a replacement the screenplay was locked, the film entirely cast, and the budget still insufficient. He did manage to bring along composer Ennio Morricone, whose low-key orchestral soundtrack is one of Mission to Mars‘ genuine assets. De Palma also brings along a strong visual sense – even if it is consistently let down by unconvincing CGI.
On paper Mission to Mars appears to have a strong and likeable cast, including Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen, and Don Cheadle. In practice they are all uniformly under-served. It actually emphasises the importance of scripts to films: despite a noted director and A-list cast, this is the least convincing and most awkward these actors have ever been.
So, as the myth goes, the failure of Mission to Mars kicked off Disney’s fear of using the word Mars. Perhaps, if true, it should have generated a fear of bad movies.
At the time of writing, Mission to Mars is currently streaming on Disney+.