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Director: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Writers: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Stars: Mark Strong, Luke Wilson, Sanaa Lathan
As space movies goes, reaching Mars as been a staple of the genre for decades, the red planet a source for all kinds of stories from monsters and aliens to horror and comedy to colonization and isolation. The successful films have always let the characters keep it grounded, despite the setting, while keeping us in awe of the grand vastness of space. Mark Elijah Rosenberg‘s Approaching the Unknown, is less about the majesty of the stars–and like Ridley Scott‘s recent The Martian–more about a singular man’s experience.
That man is Captain William D. Stanaforth, played by the always dependable Mark Strong, an inventor who finds a way to chemically extract water from soil and uses this creation to become the engineer of a massive project that will permanently house humans on Mars. After a series of missions place materials on the planet’s surface, Stanaforth is set to leave Earth forever and establish the first human presence on an alien world.
Behind him is another ship, carrying Captain Maddox (Sanaa Lathan), meant to be the second person to help build the future of Mankind. Both experience challenges on the journey that test their limits and has everyone questioning the motivation of moving off Earth. Indeed, on the last leg of Stanaforth’s trip, he docks at a space station and meets two men who have shared the small space for months and are disillusioned with the situation, both dark and lonely, even hostile, warning Stanaforth that space is not a place for man, and he should not think otherwise. It’s a disheartening moment. But there is ever-constant connection with Earth in a mission control operator played by Luke Wilson, who robotically reminds him to carry one, and all the while, Stanaforth tries to outdo Neil Armstrong and come up with an inspiring first words on Mars.
Unlike most other Mars movies, the story isn’t really about the red planet. It’s about what happens along the way, or in some cases, what doesn’t. As expected, things break down and it’s the ingenuity and steadfast, clinical approach of Stanaforth that keeps things running. But that’s the technical matters. There are also the mental issues of loneliness and acceptance. We watch as he eats the same food in a pouch and performs the same routines and passes the long days in space in his relatively small ship with consistency while an ever-increasing weight presses upon his shoulders. Through flashbacks, some prompted by students who call the ship with questions for class projects, we learn of Stanaforth’s tenacity and his already deep sense of loneliness, despite his family, let a lone the billions of people he shares the Earth with. In a telling moment, he is so overwhelmed by this sense of isolation, he can’t bring himself to watch his wife win a prestigious award for fear of contaminating the hall where she is being honored.
Rosenberg’s debut, both as writer and director, is a solid first effort. There are some grand visual moments both in space and on land, especially in some flashbacks to a white sand desert. He builds good tension and is patient, with several well-paced sequences that are effective, mostly because they don’t hold our hands. Strong is well cast and compelling, keeping us interested, being on screen for almost the entirety of the production. He as long been a supporting character and has found great success in that role, but it’s good to see him leading a cast. Rosenberg uses him well, and we see where the influences are in imagery that harkens back to Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris (Solyaris). It’s a moody, thinking film that relies on the characters rather than action to move things forward.
Issues abound with the script though, with far too much expositional dialog and a number of obvious ‘space movie’ clichés, including the slow build of mechanical breakdowns, scenes of daily routines, and everything about Wilson’s control operator. For those still feeling the charm and humor of Matt Damon‘s turn as the marooned scientist in the aforementioned The Martian, there will be some disappointment as Strong wisely avoids comparison, though there is a lot of science-ing things but less charisma. Still, this is a competently made film and well-acted. Approaching the Unknown is well worth a look, though might not be the Mars movie you are expecting. Don’t let that steer you away.