Are you a fan of Mark Strong? Does your heart hold a special place for spaceship maintenance and mechanical engineering in zero gravity? Well then, do I have a movie for you…
Approaching The Unknown evokes the essence of Europa Report, where space exploration becomes a metaphor for man’s deadly curiosity. Humanity has finally reached a point where colonizing Mars seems reasonable, and astronaut William D. Stanaforth’s (Mark Strong) agrees to take the first trip – alone. To make this dream possible, Stanaforth created a reactor that converts dirt into drinkable water, which is the first step in creating inhabitable conditions on Mars. With Stanaforth’s technology, the red planet can become a livable destination, but only if his reactor can get there in one piece.
A sole astronaut is forced to survive alone in space – stop me if you’ve heard this before.
While different, it’s impossible not to notice similarities between Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s Approaching The Unknown. Mark Strong is forced to man this astrological thriller with minimal support (Luke Wilson plays his Earth-bound connection), as scientific and mechanical problems present themselves during his journey to Mars. Like Matt Damon, Strong’s explorer is extremely knowledgable, but unlike Damon, he’s a bit more wooden, and not as charismatically entertaining. Maybe it’s unfair to compare Strong to Sam Rockwell’s performance in Moon or Damon’s own daring Mars escape, but other actors have found themselves in similar predicaments and commanded more attention despite one-man performances.
Unlike The Martian, Rosenberg’s story takes more of a Europa Report form (as previously mentioned) in its warning of egotistical obsession. Stanaforth finds so much prestige in being the first man on Mars that it clouds his intellect, and also raises questions of societal exasperation. Other astronauts scoff at Stanaforth’s abandonment of our beautiful blue planet, as he’s driven slightly mad by the thought of going somewhere most have only dreamed of visiting. It’s never a suicide mission, yet Stanaforth unnecessarily turns it into one without much explanation besides the glory of personal research. Without emotion, Strong’s spaceship finds itself hurdling farther and farther into a forgettable sector that few will find reasoning in – selfishness be damned.
That said, Rosenberg has an eye for cinematic engagement on a visual level. Despite a few lackluster special effects here and there (sparks/explosions), the universal landscape Strong gazes upon doesn’t disappoint celestially. Planets pop, stars are bright, and gassy clouds swirl like whipping strands of pixie dust. For how nonsensical Stanaforth’s decision-making is, Rosenberg and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra artfully capture the finely-detailed animations that re-create space’s infinite nothingness (in the few glimpses we get). Sure, Strong’s astronaut suit makes him look like a cut-rate Gru (Despicable Me) during the film’s closing act, but detailed set mechanics make up for other production failures.
Alas, CGI nightscapes can’t save Stanaforth’s strange character arc. As plans begin to crumble, Rosenberg’s hero/narrator begins to talk in depressing poetics with mentions of how he might as well step outside and let the atmosphere rip him apart. It’s all very bleak and dreary, how one man contemplates throwing his life away when the chips are down. Instead of re-grouping and trying again another time, Stanaforth attempts to press on, and seals himself inside his steel tomb of a spaceship. They say knowledge is power, but in Approaching The Unknown, it’s a death sentence.
Inquisitive minds may find justice and solace in William D. Stanaforth’s courageous mission, but this familiar-ish story has been told before, and with more enthusiasm. Space will always be the final frontier, but Approaching The Unknown proves that you might need more than one cowboy to ensure there’s enough drama to go around. Mark Strong does his best – fighting the odds – but there’s nothing wholly gripping about Stanaforth’s collision-course with fate. Maybe true scientists will connect with the crushing despair of mechanical failure on a more fulfilling level, but this is one film that could have used one last check to tighten all the screws.
Approaching The Unknown is a dull blend of Europa Report and The Martian, despite Mark Strong's best efforts.