My expectations were sky high for Mars, a national geographic mini-series produced by Ron Howard that promised to be the definitive word on Man's first mission to the Red Planet. The subject has fascinated me since I was a kid, watching the Spirit and Opportunity rovers land on the surface of Mars in 2004. As someone interested in the material, I saw this new Mars documentary as an opportunity to catch up on the most current thoughts about a manned mission to Mars. However, this National Geographic mini-series squanders the opportunity, providing precious little in the way of concrete information about a mission to Mars, and providing far too much in the way of ponderous melodrama.
The series is split between a documentary-style exploration of the newest technologies and theories regarding a Mars mission, and a fictional story of what a Mars mission might look like (Titles cards "2016" and "2033" note the changes). In the right hands, this structure might work, but even with a big name like Ron Howard attached, Mars is a thorough failure in both ways.
To begin with, it should be noted that while the series is split between two stories, the attention given is not 50/50. The 2033 story takes up about 75% of the series, and that is a two-folded problem. One, the 2033 story is totally uninteresting, and two, it limits what the 2016 story can tell. The result is a documentary that has nothing to teach. The entire 2016 portion of the series is made up of nebulous pontificating about the importance of a manned mission to Mars. We get a non-stop barrage of lines like, "We look to the stars" "It is our destiny as human beings", "A paradigm shift for humanity", and so on, without a single word about the science or engineering challenges of such a mission. Even the scenes such as the SpaceX launch or the spotlight on astronaut Mark Kelly, where the series should be able to provide some facts, Mars uses as an opportunity for more pretentious melodrama. I want to know how a SpaceX rocket would land on Mars, I don't care about what Elon Musk felt like when he launched a prototype. I want to know what an astronaut would do during a flight to Mars, I don't care what his daughter thinks about him while he's up there.
Nowhere is the melodrama more apparent than in the fictional 2033 section of the series. It is apparent from the first 10 minutes of the first episode, that Mars' fictional section has no interest in realism. The "diverse" cast is made up of walking cartoons (How many tough foreign women and Africans are we sending to Mars?), and they apparently spend the entirety of their trip in cartoon action scenes. The way this series handles deaths on Mars is somehow both outlandishly juvenile and stupefyingly pretentious (The scene where the plant guy goes crazy and kills a bunch of people is one of the stupidest things I'll ever see). What makes matters worse is the look of the 2033 sections. Mars has never looked uglier. Barren as it is, the real Mars has a kind of untouched beauty. With director Everardo Gout, Mars has the oppressive gray sheen of the worst that digital videography has to offer. Even with a noticeably expensive production, Mars is a horrible visual experience where it should be great.
National Geographic's Mars is a monumental disappointment for me. I was ready for a big-budget update on the continuing struggle to put a man on Mars. Unfortunately, this series is all melodrama. Mars is not interested in educating anyone about the Red Planet or how we might get there. What we get is a self-important mess, a lecture about nothing, a terrible documentary and an embarrassing drama. If you are looking for a series with actual information about a manned mission to Mars as well as a fictionalized account of such a mission, check out Mars Rising and Race To Mars. Neither are perfect, but they are a world more substantial than this National Geographic series.