Holy wow, guys, this is one interesting and entertaining movie. A trio of astronauts is sent by NASA to the Red Planet in hopes of finding sentient life. Or life of any kind. To paraphrase the noted mathematician Ian Malcolm, although the planet appears to be barren, life finds a way. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has sent up an artificially intelligent robot in an effort to beat the Americans.
This is a stunning animated opus - yes, I said animated - that uses a technique similar to rotoscoping; director Geoff Marslett developed the technique specifically for this film, and it makes the movie look much more like an actual graphic novel. The technique is a real treat. Much like rotoscoping, for this technique scenes are shot as live action and then converted to animation, lending a realistic, colorful look and feel.
The crew is composed of Hank Morrison (Paul Gordon), the captain and pilot; Dr. Casey Cook (Zoe Dean), the scientist; and Charlie Brownsville (Mark Duplass), who's, well, the backup. The redundancy may not fly in real life (no pun intended), but here we can suspend our disbelief. After all, this is science fiction, with a comic bent.
The astronauts deal with the boredom of space travel, and in particular the well-named Charlie bemoans the fact that he's much more expendable than his crewmates. In fact, when the trio does arrive at Mars, Morrison and Cook are to head down to the planet in a shuttle while Charlie figuratively keeps the motor running. Morrison is the brooding type, harboring a secret; Cook is the imaginative, energetic type, quickly drawn to the everyman Charlie. And if hanging around doing nothing while the so-called real astronauts do their astronaut thing, Charlie has been directed by NASA to give live interviews to an Entertainment Tonight-like duo (Liza Weil and James Kochalka) that are designed to promote the expensive trip.
Now, although Charlie has been deemed redundant (by the NASA chief Shep, played by Howe Gelb), he's actually a former hero. Did space walks and such, and was really good at them. So maybe he's not completely useless, and we can forgive NASA for tossing him in the ship. And what a ship! Although there's just the standard astronaut meals and accommodations, there's also a huge (!) garden for seeding Mars. This garden contains a pool, presumably to keep the flora watered, but a pool nonetheless. Pretty darn awesome spaceship, if you ask me. It might be worth noting that the movie, released in 2010, is set in the future - 2015. Okay, maybe the film makers missed this prediction.
But this isn't a typical sci-fi film - there's philosophy afoot! Why do we want to discover? How do we react to what's out there? What is the worth of knowledge of the stars? All good questions, and thankfully the movie doesn't sit us down and lecture to us on each subject. In fact, the movie's pretty low key, with only a few action sequences - one of which does indeed involve a space walk. And the point of view we get to see isn't just that of the astronauts, because a probe sent by the ESA five years prior is, long thought to be lost, is somehow still active, taking pictures and recording video - just not transmitting. It, too, holds some interesting secrets.
To some, Mars the movie may seem like just an experiment, something a film-school grad student knocked out for the fun of it. I would disagree. The movie both looks good and sounds good. The plot, although secondary to the characters and the visuals, is strong and open ended. Unlike most sci-fi stories told by Hollywood, this one offers no neat-and-tidy answers to the problems it brings up. And in this case, the ambiguity meshes very nicely with the conflicting emotions of the humans in the movie. Besides, any movie with Kinky Friedman as the president of the United States can't be all bad.