You don’t have to be Ridley Scott or have $100 million to make a Trip to Mars movie.
A couple of minimalist sets, video monitors to bring other settings/characters and a desert you can film in reddish filters and voila — we’ve got our Mission to Mars.
But whatever Paramount’s modest intentions in green-lighting “Approaching the Unknown,” losing the race into theaters to “The Martian” renders it superfluous.
Some good actors make it worth checking out, but it feels like the rough draft for a prequel to the Matt Damon movie. It’s meditative without being deep, brief without feeling taut and tense. The most important thing it shares with “The Martian” is a sense of “We’re going to Mars. It’s time. Might as well get on with it.” Everything it does — survival space science, etc. — “Martian” does better, and with humor.
“Approaching the Unknown” is something of a tour de force for the great British character actor Mark Strong. As Captain William Stanaforth, an American on his way to be the First Man on Mars, he is all interior monologues about his suitability for solitude and the nature of the challenge.
“Nothing lives there. Nothing has ever died there,” he narrates. “But I’m going to bring it to life.”
Stanaforth is a biologist who has concocted a reactor that renders rocks and soil down to hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which it then links up for H2O — water.
NASA (never mentioned by name) has shipped some habitat units and supplies to the Red Planet. And since there’s now a deep space two-man space station, Stanaforth and his ship, the Zephyr, will stop there to collect more supplies. That way not everything he needs has to be lifted from Earth by the same Heavy Lift rocket that will carry him to Mars.
It’s a “one-way mission,” but he’s not going there to die. He will set up camp, crank up his reactor, make water and grow plants. You know, like Matt Damon in “The Martian.” And others will follow.
The Big Idea here isn’t a new one. The pilot of TV’s “The Twilight Zone” was also spun off the conceit that the solitude facing one-man missions in space might drive an astronaut mad. And when things go wrong for Stanaforth, his Mission Control cap-com (capsule communicator), played by Luke Wilson, harangues him about that from long distance.
“Keep it together. Stay sane. Stay focused.”
For a biologist, Stanaforth has mad engineering skills. He’s brought an old wooden tool box he no doubt inherited from his grandfather, and his trouble-shooting and tinkering talents are well-established in flashbacks (inventing the reactor) and fixing early issues.
But the one mission component that doesn’t have a backup is him. Even though there’s another astronaut following him a few weeks later (Sanaa Lathan) in another ship.
His supply stop at the space station tips him, and us, that this isn’t going to all go according to plan. The two man crew there is jittery, testy and nothing like the all-business/gung-ho astronauts we met from “The Right Stuff” generation. They’ve gone metaphysical thanks to the loneliness and prolonged pairing up.
That’s the main novelty of Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s debut film. The casual, caustic and curse-filled conversations, blame-slinging and blame shifting and disobeying of orders seen here has been pretty much winnowed out of the astronaut pool from the start by NASA’s rigorous psychological testing in the real world. Lathan has only a couple of (video monitor) scenes, and she shows human defensiveness and sass that we’ve never heard from real astronauts.
The Zephyr’s interior looks like the inside of the Space Shuttle (especially the Shuttle’s cargo bay), and Wilson’s Mission Control video images could have been filmed in a storefront office in any office park. Much of the effects budget was spent on dreamy Hubble Space Telescope-mimicking imagery.
I liked the practicality of the spaceship, and Strong’s performance. But “Approaching the Unknown” feels incomplete. The drama comes from situations that are old hat — “Approaching the Overfamiliar.” The third act is straight-up recycling which any classic sci-fi film fan will recognize. Rosenberg is nobody’s idea of a “Star Child.”
Still, if you want another lesson about why we should be going to Mars and what we’ll encounter and maybe find out about ourselves, “Unknown” will do until we have an actual liftoff.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Cast:Mark Strong, Luke Wilson, Sanaa Lathan
Credits: Written and directed by Mark Elijah Rosenberg. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:30