COMING SOON: ‘Mars’ Attacks

Unidentified life forms, uncharted planets and even a galaxy far, far, away. … Let’s face it, astronomy geeks, it’s Hollywood — not NASA — that has been winning the space race all along.

Given that proverbial truth, it makes sense that the first images of Mars to really enter the popular imagination will not be crappy photos taken from some nameless satellite but from “Mission to Mars” (opening wide Friday), a big-budget flick directed by the spectacle-oriented Brian DePalma, whose testosterone-laden resume ranges from “Scarface” to “The Untouchables” to “Mission: Impossible.”

This ersatz Mars flick — from the folks at Disney — has not only beaten the real space cowboys to the planet but Warner Bros.’ “Red Planet” as well. The two studios had battled, from pre-production on, to launch their respective Mars flicks before the other. So stiff was the competition that many thought this spring would see the two films opening within months (if not weeks) of each other — that is until Warners yelled uncle and announced that “Red Planet” wouldn’t bow until November. Which brings us back to — and leaves us with — “Mission to Mars.”

Co-starring Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins, “Mission” is about a team of astronauts dispatched on a rescue mission to the putative planet. If the sneak peeks are any indication, the film looks to be a visual feast that is more stylistically and aesthetically akin to Stanley Kubrick’s quietly minimal “2001: A Space Odyssey” than, say, to the excessively showy “Armageddon.”

This isn’t to say there won’t be the usual nifty special effects, splashy explosions and so forth in “Mission to Mars.” This is just to say that they’ll probably be done with tasteful restraint worthy of the subject on hand. After all, the flick does lay claim to excavating the origins of life. And we know how Hollywood likes to be reverential and stuff. (Yeah.)

In other new releases:

— Marking his return to the screen this week is director-in-exile Roman Polanski. The filmmaker’s new flick — and he hasn’t had one of those since 1994’s “Death and the Maiden” — is “The Ninth Gate” (opening wide Friday), a horror tale about a book finder (Johnny Depp) on the trail of two lost demonic tomes. So after six years away from theaters, is Polanski rusty? Let’s just say there’s no one who mixes suspense and character study with results as haunting as Polanski. Unconvinced? Go rent “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.”

— Remember “Fail-Safe,” the 1964 black-and-white drama with Henry Fonda as the president who nukes New York City to compensate for the Russians accidentally bombing Moscow? Well, you can watch that particular crisis played out anew in color in Paramount’s “Deterrence” (opening in limited release Friday). Set in a 21st century-style political climate (the commies are out; the Iraqis are in), Sydney Pollack stars as the president who must decide whether to drop the bomb.

— Other films bowing in limited release this week include the doc “Condo Painting” (New York only, Friday) and the Japanese anime “X” (Seattle only, Friday).

Films getting expanded releases this week include the Irish comedy “The Closer You Get” and the documentary “Sex: The Annabel Chong Story”.