Thursday, June 02, 2016

Approaching the Unknown: Mars Beckons

Captain William D. Stanaforth is going where no man has gone before—and he is going it alone. He was always meant to arrive on Mars first, but he might have to wait longer than he expected before anyone joins him. That assumes he will reach the Red Planet, but that is far from assured in Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s Approaching the Unknown (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Stanaforth is the very model of a modern major astronaut. He is a crackerjack pilot, but he is also a first rate engineer. In fact, one of the primary reasons for his selection was the water harvester he invented. Unfortunately, the contraption worked just fine in the desert, but he cannot get it up and running in his module, which indirectly causes other technical issues. Captain Emily Maddox, who is piloting the mission directly following his, also has mechanical breakdowns. There is a good chance it will just be Stanaforth heading towards Mars, with his shaky sanity, failing life support systems, and the nagging transmissions from his pal Louis “Skinny” Skinner at Mission Control.

Yes sir, it is like Gravity for The Martian, with a bit of Europa Report thrown in for good measure. Nonetheless, it is hard to resent a bit of borrowing in a film that celebrates the daring sacrifice of space exploration. Approaching is also unusually cerebral film, relying far less on effects than the obvious big budget comparison films. Production designer Steven Brower and his team also make the module interior look spectacularly trashed when conditions start going south.

Yet, the key to the film is the ever-reliable but strangely under-heralded Mark Strong, who really is one of the best in the business. Frankly, he is probably too big to be an astronaut, but in all other respects, he is perfect for the tightly-wound, relentlessly driven Stanaforth. He pretty much carries the film single-handedly, which is fortunate, since his co-stars only appear boxed-up on Stanaforth’s monitor screens. However, Anders Danielsen Lie (from Oslo, August 31st) and Charles Baker genuinely radiate bad karma as the two twitchy, stir crazy space station astronauts who are supposed to be Stanaforth last human contact for months (perhaps even years).

Viewers will probably have a good idea where Approaching is headed, but Rosenberg still lands his big, significant closing. In fact, it is rather refreshing to see an idealistic film that believes in the values of the Apollo missions and the original Star Trek. Recommended for those who support interplanetary exploration and intimate chamber drama, Approaching the Unknown opens tomorrow (6/3) in New York at the Cinema Village.