A 'Mission' of clichs and a 'Gate' to chills

Despite a new millennium ahead, some normally adventurous filmmakers are turning back to time-tested formats.

"Mission to Mars" is inspirational fantasy with more than a touch of "2001: A Space Odyssey" woven into its plot. "The Ninth Gate" is an old-fashioned thriller that Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi might have skulked through in bygone years.

Movie fans think of many things when Brian De Palma's name is mentioned: violent thrills, over-the-top style, Hitchcockian suspense. What doesn't come to mind are streamlined science fiction and New Age clichs - yet Mission to Mars has plenty of both, filling the screen with equal measures of eye-dazzling grandeur and mind-numbing sentimentality.

The picture focuses on two missions to Mars. The first reaches an enigmatic end when its astronauts stumble onto a mysterious structure in the red planet's desolate landscape. Then a backup group tries to discover what happened. They encounter the same cryptic object, but their different response leads to a very different outcome.

"Mission to Mars" works best when De Palma cuts off the dialogue's oxygen supply and allows Stephen Burum's shimmering camera work to soar, transforming the clunkily written screenplay into a striking visual experience. It's hardly an original movie, echoing ideas from "Forbidden Planet" and "Chariots of the Gods," to name just a couple of sources. But its cinematography is literally dizzying at times, proving that De Palma can still put on a good show even when his material isn't the freshest he might have found.

The Ninth Gate takes Roman Polanski back to the supernaturally tinged territory he explored so memorably in "The Tenant" and "Rosemary's Baby" years ago. The hero is an unscrupulous rare-book expert (Johnny Depp) scavenging Europe for two obscure volumes penned by the devil himself. His adventures are structured like a traditional detective tale, with the sharp-witted antihero assembling the pieces of a sinister puzzle.

Polanski spins the yarn with a generally straight face, adding an occasional self-satirizing touch to let us know he's as aware as we are that the whole shebang doesn't make a shred of sense. It goes on too long and doesn't have much of a payoff, but Polanski's directing is marvelously assured and the story has enough surprises to keep chiller fans happy.

*'Mission to Mars,' rated PG, contains violence. 'The Ninth Gate,' rated R, contains violence and brief but explicit sex.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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