Williams stars as an eccentric NASA programmer named Fred Z. Randall, who is given the chance to go travel on an eight-month journey to Mars — manned by the mission commander William Overbeck (Sadler) — as a replacement computer specialist, despite having no experience as an astronaut. When the crew is put to hypersleep to shorten the journey, a chimp named Ulysses switches pods with the reluctant Fred, disrupting his sleep months earlier than everyone else during the journey.
With the crew asleep, Fred has no choice but to amuse himself with data studies of Mars and creating a Sistine Chapel-style painting on the ceiling with the supplies provided. Meanwhile on Earth, the crew discover weather reports of a sandstorm on the planet and become concerned over the astronauts safety, but the flight director Paul Wick (DeMunn) is adamant to continue the mission.
With no usable supplies and a sandstorm on the way, Hilarity Ensues as the flight crew eventually reach their destination.
The film provides examples of the following tropes:
- Almost Out of Oxygen: Randall trades oxygen packs with Ulysses to give buy time for them to get back to the lander. Justified in that he just set a record for lung capacity, but he still nearly asphyxiates, and Overbeck lampshades the danger.Randall: [holding his breath] What, you ignore me the entire trip and now that I have no air, you want to chat?
- Answer Cut: When asked by Director Ben who is Wick's second choice for replacement astronaut, the latter face slowly turns into a grimace followed by a cut to Fred Randall whooping at his arrival to NASA HQ for the first time.
- Artistic License Physics: The film isn't trying to be on the hard end of the scale, mostly focusing on the comedy. For example, there doesn't appear to be a communications lag between mission control back on Earth and the astronauts on Mars, despite the fact that Mars is about 3 light minutes away (that's the closest distance ever recorded between the two planets). This means that any conversation would require the crew to wait 3 minutes for their message to get to Earth, mission control to reply, and then wait 3 more minutes for the reply to get to Mars.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: When talking to the President, he starts singing "I've Got The Whole World in My Hands". Everyone, including the President, picks up the song. Then Fred switches to other languages, and we're shown people all over the world singing along with him, despite what he's singing not being even remotely close to the original meaning, just a bunch of foreign words thrown together.
- Butt-Monkey: Hackman, being the blunt of the catastrophes caused by Fred.
- Theres also Overbeck, again due to the curtesy of Fred.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The question of Fred's suitability for the Aires mission is discussed in several scenes. He's more than a little eccentric, but is also the responsible for programming the computer software NASA is using for said mission, and completes most of his recruitment tests with ease.
- Cannot Talk to Women: In his first meeting with Julie, he can barely spit out his full name while awkwardly trying to introduce himself.
- Centrifugal Farce: In the g-force resistance training, Fred and the other astronauts are subject to such a machine. Fred has no problem with 6.0g, but Bill attempts to push him past his limits by cranking it up to 7.0g. The chair's reinforcements eventually unscrews itself due to high amount of stress and the entire seating unit is catapulted through the hallways of the NASA building, with a screaming Fred still strapped to it.
- Centrifugal Gravity: Supposedly achieved by spinning the craft, but the craft is only shown to be barely spinning, while everyone is walking around as if they were on Earth.
- Chekhov's Gun: Bud's commemorative coin ends up saving the day.
- The re-wiring test, which Fred fails spectacularly, comes back to bite him, when he has to do it for real in even worse conditions (the lander is falling and spinning wildly). Thanks to Bud talking to him, he manages to do it in under 2 minutes.
- Fred holding the new breath record also comes back when he switches air supplies with Ulysses so they can get back to the lander. In fact, just about every one of the training tests comes back - his G-resistance helps during the dead spin the lander is in when he gets the re-wiring down.
- Crash-Into Hello: Fred meets Bud Nesbitt this way when he accidentally slams open a door into the latter carrying papers.
- Crisis Makes Perfect: Fred doesn't have a chance at the re-wiring test until it actually counts. Everything else he goes through without a problem.
- The Cuckoolander Was Right: NASA tries to time the Aires mission so the crew can complete its mission between anticipated storms on Mars. Fred's data analysis shows that the next storm will arrive earlier than anticipated, but he's disregarded until Bud sticks up for him.
- Ditzy Genius: Fred. He excels at astronaut training (except for one test) and breaks several long-standing NASA records. He's also an utter loon. Lampshaded at the climax.Bud: Only a complete genius or a total fool could ever pull this off. Lucky for us, he's both.
- Establishing Character Moment: Adult Fred Randall is shown his daily eccentric routine of parking his car in his cramped reserved lot, emerging from the roof and removing a tyre as part of his "anti-theft device" before reporting to work early, then playing video games before the shift starts. When the Mars team reports about his supposed "flaw" in the landing program, he is quick to prove to them that they're wrong and even finds out the cause of the report; human error on Hackman's part.
- The Mars team also get a minor one. When asked why they've failed their landing simulation for the third time, Hackman immediately blames the software, Julie becomes the voice of reason and sticks up for her teammate, while Bill calmly vouches for Hackman's accusations showing that he trusts his team.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: The trained chimp Ulysses ends forcing Fred to spend 8 months alone instead of in hyper-sleep... twice.
- Fake Static: Randall breathes on the mic to simulate static when Bud tells him to take off. The connection is already spotty, but it's a video call, so he's not fooling anybody.
- Flapping Cheeks: Fred's face is subject to this during the Centrifugal Farce training. He also gets this during the rocket launch sequence when he flips his visor off halfway through atmospheric exit.
- Funny Background Event: During the NASA press conference, a reporter in the beige suit is seen in the background showing his obvious displeasure in being rejected over-and-over again while other reporters get to ask their questions to the astronauts.
- Fun with Acronyms: During the pre-spaceflight checks the veteran astronaut crew lists off a series of acronyms and terms that sound like Techno Babble to Fred. He attempts to sound helpful by listing off his own set of acronyms such as CNN, YMCA and KFC
- Go Mad from the Isolation:
Tech: [hearing the screams from outside] Paul, this is inhuman.
- As expected, when Fred is trying out for the position of the mission's computer specialist, he has to undergo a number of physical and mental tests. He is also placed in a sensory deprivation tank for 24 hours with his competition, an actual astronaut named Gordon Peacock, in a tank next to his. The two tanks are not actually isolated from one another, just the outside world, which results in Peacock going crazy from Fred's unending singing, ball bouncing, and sock puppet theater. By sixteen hours, the man is screaming uncontrollably. When the tanks are opened after 24 hours, Peacock is shown sitting with his pants tied around his head, while Fred asks for more time to finish the play.
- This serves him well, when he gets stuck having to spend 8 months alone aboard the Aries. He does appear to temporarily go crazy (dressed like a caveman), but he quickly regains his sanity.
- Groin Attack: Fred accidentally horse-kicks Peacock in his lower regions while struggling to hold his breath during the test. Peacock breaks off the breath-holding test and gets a brief case of Helium Speech during his moment of excruciating pain.
- Here We Go Again!: On the return journey to Earth, Ulysses hijacks Fred's cryo-chamber again, forcing him to spend another eight months in isolation right before the credits roll.Fred: No! Not again! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
- Human Popsicle: To conserve supplies and shorten the journey, the crew is put into hyper-sleep pods. There are three human-sized pods and one chimp-sized. The monkey Ulysses ends up taking Fred's pod, resulting in Fred staying awake all this time. All NASA had to do was put four identical pods in the Aries, and none of this wouldn't have happened.
- Implausible Deniability: One of the Running Gags is Fred's constant "It wasn't me!" whenever he screws something up. Thanks to him slipping and falling to the Martian surface before Overbeck can take the first step, they end up being the first words spoken on Mars.
- Innocently Insensitive: A trait of the bumbling protagonist Fred.
- He is ecstatic when he meets William "Wild Bill" Overbeck for the first time, then compares the situation with himself being a palaeontologist meeting a living dinosaur. William can only mumble back a restrained "Thank you," for that 'compliment'.
- After a Crash-Into Hello with Bud Nesbitt, he keeps referencing the latter's association to the failure of Apollo 13 when the man is clearly uncomfortable talking about it.
- I Want My Mommy!: A word-for-word response of Fred when he is subject to situations of high stress, such as being stuck in a washing machine during his childhood, to being strapped to a g-forces-inducing contraption at high speeds.
- Just in Time: Fred manages to restart the lander's engines moments before it hits the Martian surface, allowing Overbeck to pilot the lander into orbit.
- Kiss of Life: Julie plants one on Randall and wakes him up. Randall promptly tries to pass the favor on to Ulysses, who is just resting, not unconscious from lack of air.
- The Klutz: Most of the film's slapstick comedy derives from Randall's utter lack of physical grace. At one point, a handful of other astronauts get Randall falling-down drunk, and if anything his coordination actually improves — it certainly doesn't get noticeably worse.
- Lost in Transmission: Randall's description of what the dust storm is like to Wick. As the video jumps, Julie looks more and more concerned at what he's saying, implying that even with the full transmission it wouldn't have made much sense.Randall: It reminds me of a French Canadian - tennis racket stuck to the back of - only snow goose - bubbling out of my sister's - Brazilian donkey! I don't think I can make myself any clearer!
- Love Interest: Astronaut Julie Ford to Fred, although she gets very little screen time due to being in hypersleep. She thinks Fred is a moron at first, but he earns her respect by the end, and they end up dancing in zero-g shortly before the credits roll.
- Mama Bear: When Overbeck is trapped under a flipped rover, Fred tries to get him out, only for Overbeck to tell him to leave him behind. Fred demands that Overbeck call him "Mommy", supposedly to jump-start Fred's maternal instincts and giving him the extra strength to lift the rover. It seems to work.
- Momma's Boy: FredFred's mom: I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just like you like 'em. It's a long trip.
Fred: (getting ready to leave for NASA) I'm not even hungry, honestly.
Mom: Look, there's a little moon, a star , and a little rocket.
Fred: I'm thirty years old, mom! I'm almost a full grown (voice cracks) man! (Mom waits for him to take a sandwich) I'll take the rocket.
- My Beloved Smother: Fred's mom is worried about her son going to Mars. She assumes he's just going through a "rebel phase". Then she offers him some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches shaped like planets, stars, and spaceships. And she won't stop pestering until he at least gets one sandwich.Fred's Mom: (seeing the launching of the shuttle) Oh Lord, I hope I packed him enough underwear.
Fred's Dad: I wouldn't worry about that pumpkin, He's probably packin' his own underwear right now.
- My Greatest Failure: Discussed by Bud about the Apollo 13 mission. Before the launch, he spotted a minor glitch but Wick told him he was overreacting. Looking back, Bud realize he had every authority to postpone the launch until it's checked, but he didn't and if the Apollo 13 crew hadn't make it back home, then it would have truly been his fault. He won't let it happen with the Aries too.
- Never My Fault: Hackman, the astronaut Fred replaced. He ends up getting injured, trying to prove the computer made a mistake, but it only proved he was indeed wrong.Hackman: (in a neck brace, on a wheelchair) I can explain!
- Old Shame: Invoked. Bud has been disgraced ever since he's been blamed for Apollo 13.
- Pinball Projectile: After Fred beats Bill's record in the breath-holding test, he accidentally blows a ball out of the balance cylinder which ricochets around the room several times before pelting Peacock right in the center of his forehead.
- Running Gag:
- Screams Like a Little Girl: Fred, when he heard he's been chosen to go on the mission.
- Space Madness: Played for laughs. After failing to enter the stipulated eight-months cryo-sleep (thanks to Ulysses), we are shown a montage of Fred attempting to pass the time by doing various chores and comically losing his sanity as it goes on. By six months, he's grown caveman hair, wearing facepaint and running around pretending that Space Pirates are attempting to take over the ship while trapped in Darkest Africa.
- The Stinger: A Martian is shown stealing Fred's American flag underwear and wearing it.
- This Cannot Be!: Wick's reactions when the Aries crew are experiencing the storms."Ra-Randall No That's impossible. Our weather pattern analysis..."
- Time Passes Montage: Fred falls asleep inside a stasis chamber made for a chimp (who has taken Fred's chamber) preceding a montage of space nebulae, before then showing him waking up and finding that he hasn't even been asleep for a whole day (out of eight months of stasis intended).
- Titled After the Song: And said Elton John tune plays in the credits.
- Toilet Humor: Several times.
- When first using the toilet aboard the Aries, Fred ends up nearly flushing Bud's commemorative coin. He nearly gets sucked into vacuum himself and comes out looking very blue (thanks to the blue toilet water)... right as the crew is talking to the President on national TV.
- On Mars, Fred and Overbeck are walking on the red planet, connected by a hose, since Overbeck's air supply is damaged. Fred ends up farting, resulting in his trademark "It wasn't me!", causing Overbeck to flip out and yell that there isn't another person for millions of miles (except Julie, the third crew-member who is aboard the lander). Naturally, Fred then blames Julie (Lundy).Fred: Commander, I'm having trouble breathing.
Overbeck: You're having trouble breathing?! My eyes are burning!
- Everyone in Mission Control (except Wick) are laughing up a storm.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Wick was told to "go home" after it was confirmed about the storms and Bud takes command.
- You Are in Command Now: Bud takes over after Wick was told to leave.
- You Have to Believe Me!: Bud tries to warn Wick about the sandstorms arriving earlier than anticipated.Wick: I have a room full of experts telling me everything's just peachy. And you walk up to me and tell me to reconsider a $40 billion mission. Just because you have a hunch?
Bud: That's right!