After receiving Commander Graham's garbled message relaying his crewmembers' deaths, the Earth command center hastily dispatches another Mars mission. The crew of this new mission includes Commander Woodrow "Woody" Blake (Tim Robbins); Co-Commander Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise); and mission specialists Terri Fisher (Connie Nielsen) and Phil Ohlmyer (Jerry O'Connell). The goal of the mission is to investigate the tragedy and bring back any survivors. As the ship is being prepared for its orbital insertion around the red planet, a swarm of micrometeorites collides with the ship and compromises the ship's hull, causing an atmosphere leak. The crew works quickly to repair the holes.
Unbeknowst to the crew, the fuel tanks were also damaged, and when they ignite the main engines to slow and enter Mars orbit, the resulting fuel explosion destroys the engines. They quickly don pressure suits and abandon the ship, hoping to maneuver their way to the REMO. Circumstances are unfavorable, though, as the REMO is moving more quickly (in a slightly lower orbit) than the tethered astronauts. Woody concludes the only hope of a successful rendezvous with the REMO is for him to launch himself directly at it, using the remainder of his jet pack fuel, carrying a line from the others. He successfully attaches this to the REMO but is unable to stop himself as he does and floats helplessly away toward the planet. Terri, wanting to save him, decides to cut her line. Woody, not wanting Terri to be harmed, takes off his helmet and depressurizes.
When the remaining crew arrive on the red planet, they find Luke, the captain of the first team, still alive. He has built a greenhouse and been living on its produce, including oxygen. He tells the rescuers about his crew's find, and informs them that the formation found was the Face on Mars. He had spent the time alone attempting to learn the secrets of the mysterious structure. He shows the rescue team his most significant clue, a recording of the noise heard in the area of the formation. He had found, after several months of analysis, that the sound was a map of human DNA, in XYZ coordinates.
Together, they discover that the mysterious signals are actually a prompt, requiring a return radio signal to input of one missing pair of chromosomes which would complete human DNA. Knowing the completing sequence, but worried about a repeat of the EMP, the crew dispatches a robot to send the completed signal, at which time an opening appears in the side of the structure. Curious, they venture inside, and are soon sealed in, discovering Earth-like atmospheric conditions. They find a large dark room, and once they step inside, a three-dimensional projection of the solar system appears.
The trio see the planet Mars when it was covered with water being hit by a large asteroid. Shortly after, a tall, feminine humanoid -- a martian -- appears. It shows the group that the Martians evacuated their planet in spaceships. One ship stayed behind, and dispatched elementary life forms of their own to the nearby planet Earth, which at the time of the Martian evacuation, contained no life forms. Over the billions of years following this "seed-scattering" (see panspermia), these life forms eventually became the humans who would one day land on Mars and be recognized as descendants of that ancient Martian experiment.
As the image of the Martian fades away, an invitation is offered for one of the astronauts to follow the Martians to one of their new home planets. Jim McConnell decides to go, and after their farewells, the rest of the surviving crew head back to Earth. Jim arrives in a room which fills up with water. He then discovers that he can breathe in it. As the remaining astronauts are heading toward earth they watch in curiosity as Jim inside a Martian craft races away at speeds hundreds of times faster than their ship.
|Gary Sinise||Jim McConnell|
|Tim Robbins||Woodrow "Woody" Blake|
|Jerry O'Connell||Phil Ohlmyer|
|Don Cheadle||Luke Graham|
|Kim Delaney||Maggie McConnell|
|Armin Mueller-Stahl||Ramier Beck (uncredited)|
|Elise Neal||Debra Graham|
|Connie Nielsen||Terri Fisher|
|Peter Outerbridge||Sergei Kirov|
|Kavan Smith||Nicholas Willis|
|Jill Teed||Reneé Coté|