Hollywood launches off to Mars

After nearly a week of trying to make contact with the $165 million Mars Polar Lander, scientists and NASA officials have all but given up the mission as a failure. Never an industry to shy away from big-money crap shoots, the motion picture community is putting a great deal of faith in a pair of Mars-related pictures that it hopes will generate substantially more interest and success than the recent NASA fiasco.

Disney is putting a great deal of time and strength behind its summer 2000 offering “Mission to Mars.” Directed by Brian DePalma and starring Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Kim Delaney and Jerry O’Connell, “Mars” surrounds a seemingly failed manned mission to the red planet. As rescue operations are put in place, it is quickly discovered that an even greater menace may be waiting for them on Mars.

Competing for summer box office bucks in the Mars arena will be Warner Bros.’ “Red Planet.” Directed by Antony Hoffman and slated for a June 16 bow, “Red Planet” stars Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore and Terence Stamp in the story of a disastrous journey to Mars. While exploring the planet, most of the crew becomes stranded, leaving the ship’s captain to decide whether to return to Earth without them or attempt a near-impossible rescue.

Much like the battle of the volcanoes a few years back, 2000 is shaping up to be the war for Martian domination. Yet while the interest in the current Mars debacle is something studio folks are not likely to overlook as the marketing machines begin to rev around these two high-profile features, Exhibitor Relations’ Paul Dergarabedian is quick to point out that timing is still everything.

“I don’t think [the Mars probe news] will have much effect on these films,” he said. “Events in the news need to be timely to really have much impact on a film’s success. Certainly it puts Mars in the minds of people.”

With both studios taking a decidedly futuristic approach (both missions are manned, and the lives of the crew are quickly put in extreme danger), the films are hoping to bring audiences a great deal closer to the action than even a working space probe could ever dream of. Though the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s apparent failure and the fates of the crews in both films seem questionable, space exploration in cinema should still be a slam-dunk.

“People love this stuff,” said Dergarabedian. “They eat it up. Each of these films has its strong selling points and will be marketed in their own special way.”

As to the possibility that too much Mars might spell disaster for both at the box office, Dergarabedian sees no such reason to fret.

“Look at “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” he said. “These films came out very close to one another and still did tremendous business. Films with similar subject matter can do really well at the box office.”

Mission to Mars” is expected to launch March 10, and “Red Planet” expects to blast off June 16.