Film Review: Approaching the Unknown

approaching the unknown movie poster one sheetColonizing mars is a popular topic right now, even offering the seeds of a space race between Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing Aerospace to see which group can establish a manned base on Mars. And then there’s the splendid movie The Martian from 2015, coming on the heels of the gripping film 2013 film Gravity.

Fifty years ago, Hollywood was fascinated by the moon, in parallel with the Apollo missions leading up to a man stepping onto the surface of the moon. Now, however, it’s Mars. Other recent films about Mars include Ghost of Mars, Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Last Days on Mars and even Mars Needs Moms and John Carter.

Into this popular red planet zeitgeist, we meet Captain William Stanaforth (Mark Strong), heading towards Mars to begin setting up the first Martian colony so that fellow astronauts can join him on the planet. Equipment and gear have already been sent to the planet, he’ll land there and begin to assemble everything into a habitat.

Stanaforth’s trip is designed around him meeting up en route with fellow astronaut Emily Maddox (Sanaa Lathan), except something goes wrong with her ship and he’s marooned en route as he barrels towards the red planet. He doesn’t have the food or water to survive the trip, so what can he do but turn the ship around and head back to Earth?

But Stanaforth is the head of the mission because he invented a machine that could supercompress dirt and split out hydrogen and oxygen into water. There’s one of these machines on the spaceship too and the ship has plants on board that will grow or die based on his ability to produce water. He gets the machine up and working on the ship. Until the machine fails in a small explosion. Now what?

Captain William Stanaforth (Mark Strong), from "Approaching the Unknown"
Captain William Stanaforth (Mark Strong) tends to onboard plants, from “Approaching the Unknown”

Mission control back on Earth, as embodied by Louis “Skinny” Skinner (a very subdued Luke Wilson), wants Stanaforth to turn back. He can’t make it to Mars, so accept the failure and head back home. Stanaforth refuses and disconnects from mission control so he can focus on fixing the water machine.

Shades of The Martian? More than shades, really. In fact, while Approaching the Unknown is an interesting movie about a solo astronaut trying to retain his sanity and cool while things fall apart around him, it’s also extraordinarily derivative, even down to the critical role of water and botany. There’s also a strong current of Marooned (1969) and some inspiration from the excellent Apollo 13 (1995).

Worth seeing? Yes. But Approaching the Unknown is more a variation on the theme than a new story or new concept about space, space travel and humanity endeavoring to settle another planet.

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