Captain William D. Stanaforth (Mark Strong) is taking a 270-day trip to Mars, intent on being the first man to set foot on the Red Planet – where, as his ominous voice-over states, nothing has ever lived and nothing has ever died – to be joined a few weeks later by Emily Maddox (Sanaa Lathan), who is travelling in a second ship, which seems an unlikely set of mission parameters for a film which launches into space with low-key credibility as a goal. Their mission patches indicate that a character called Turner who we never meet or hear of is part of the set-up, though the only other significant player is Skinner (Luke Wilson), the CapCom guy seen mostly on screens checking in on the physical and mental state of the solo flier.
Stanaforth – the kind of guy whose only friend calls him by his surname and who responds by only using Skinner’s nickname (Skinny) – has earned his seat to Mars by inventing a contraption that converts dirt into potable water, which he has forced himself to perfect by walking into an Earth desert with the parts and getting the thing to function before he dies of thirst. Early in the mission, the relatively chipper pioneer – smooth-shaven head and bright eyes – picks up supplies from a space station and encounters a couple of disillusioned spacemen (Anders Danielsen Lie, Charles Baker) whose experiments have failed and who think he’s crazy for choosing to propel himself into the void of space and in all likelihood finding a deeper void inside his own head.
First-time writer-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg is entering the relatively small field of realistic space travel movies, which were a vogue (for obvious reasons) around the time of the Apollo missions but became the stuff of nostalgic exercises (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) until a recent revival with Gravity and The Martian. I wonder if this and The Martian will seem as obsolete as, say, Robert Altman’s Countdown, if and when an actual Mars mission is mounted. Gravity and The Martian are about people on missions gone wrong who have to ‘science the shit’ out of solutions – the Apollo era version of this was Marooned – but this takes a while to get to the inevitable moment when things go wrong, so it’s not as instantly accessible or suspenseful as the other movies. When Maddox’s ship has a gyro problem, the practical Stanaforth comes up with a fix by switching components – perhaps the film’s most striking image is the nearly-clockwork innards revealed when he strips away a padded panel of his capsule. This is the sort of action that marks a hero in other crisis-in-space films, but when he tries a similar bodge-up on his dirt-to-drink machine he contaminates his own water supply and has to conceal the foulup from mission control lest they abort the flight. And his first fix doesn’t last either.
A great deal of the film is all about Mark Strong struggling to wring drops of water out of anything – a little plastic container in his air conditioning unit, condensation on the window – to keep himself and his few tiny plants alive. The closing stretch – it’s hardly a spoiler to say that he makes it to Mars, though the ending is ambiguous about a lot of things – has the protagonist go quietly mad in space, refusing to talk to mission control and ignoring dire warnings, which requires Strong to grow a beard and wear a woolly hat. Rosenberg is lucky in his casting, because Strong is a persuasive presence even when Stanaforth is being vague and his character arc is veering all over the place.
It’s more of a problem that the set-up of the mission is so unlikely – surely, it’d make more sense (economically and otherwise) to have Stanaforth and Maddox (Lathan is only seen – briefly – on monitors) ride-share than travel in separate capsules? It’s an admirable effort, but like too many real-life (and screen) missions to Mars crash-lands after a promising start rather than fulfils all its mission goals. I saw this on the same day the Trieste S+F Festival screened Takashi Miike’s Terraformars, an entirely non-serious first mission to Mars movie which, frankly, is only marginally more incredible and – thanks to fights with mutant cockroaches – a whole lot more entertaining. I’m not sure if it’s my mental glitch or a real problem, but the title Approaching the Unknown just doesn’t stick in the memory: even while the film was running, I kept forgetting what it was called and I’ve had to check several times to be sure I got it right while writing these notes. There was a 1956 test pilot/rocket program picture (from perhaps the first cycle of realistic science fiction cinema, very little-remembered now) called Toward the Unknown and I’ve got a phantom title Approaching the Infinite stuck in my head somewhere.