Dir: Brian De Palma. US. 2000. 112 mins.

Prod cos: Jacobson Co Production in association with Touchstone Pictures. Co-prods: David Goyer, Justis Greene, Jim Wedda. US dist: Buena Vista . Int'l Sales: Buena Vista Int'l. Exec prod: Sam Mercer. Prod: Tom Jacobson. Scr: Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost. DoP: Stephen H Burum. Prod des: Ed Verreaux. Ed: Paul Hirsch. Music: Ennio Morricone. Main cast: Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen.

"I tried to avoid all the cliches of science fiction movies," declares De Palma of his maiden excursion into the genre, a statement likely to provoke snorts of disbelief from anyone coming back down to planet Earth after two hours with this ponderous saga, which recycles themes and situations seen in a galaxy of other space operas from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind on.

International critics are hardly likely to be more indulgent towards this old-fashioned claptrap than their American counterparts were earlier this month. Poor word-of-mouth combined with the lack of top-flight star power is likely to send it on a swift trip to the video bin.

A brief prologue - a barbecue on the eve of the first Mars mission - introduces the major characters. They include the Commander (Cheadle), his colleague (Robbins) and the original leader (Sinise) who bowed out of the programme after the death of his astronaut-wife, an event from which the script extracts an excessive amount of sentimental mileage.

The first mission ends disastrously when most of the crew are killed in a mysterious dust storm. Sinise and Robbins organise a rescue party, paving the way for a mystical encounter with an extraterrestrial and an unexpected explanation of the evolution of human life on Earth.

The film's central assumption is that the universe is based "not on chaos but on connection." However this also means a chronic failure of dramatic conflict, both among the remarkably well-adjusted crew members, and between them and the Martians. While the inspirational message might suit a Spielberg picture, it sits badly with this director's sensibilities, making Mission To Mars barely recognisable as a De Palma movie. Best among some rather ordinary special effects are the zero-gravity sequences, including a charming dance between Robbins and Nielsen.