Mars, our distant planetary neighbor, has proven to be fertile ground for imagining what could possibly lay beyond the Milky Way, eliciting endless probing and curious questions that could rival the myths of Olympus. No other planet has received such special interest in our collective consciousness as the red planet has, with an eclectic array of science fiction films ranging from the absurdly paranoid (1959’s The Angry Red Planet) to the grounded realism of Ridley Scott’s recent blockbuster The Martian.
Approaching the Unknown, the debut film from writer / director Mark Elijah Rosenberg, joins the ever-growing catalogue of Mars films with the story, of yet another, lonely American astronaut, this time in William D. Stanaforth (Mark Strong).
We know very little about Stanaforth, apart from that he’s a survivalist and problem solver; two things that let him function in life. He’s also discovered a way to create water, which is what he’s setting out to bring to Mars. He’s confident it will work, even going as far as ostracizing himself in a desert in a way to push himself to success.
During his one-man mission to Mars, we see Stanaforth caring for plants and watching taped interviews of potential fellow colonizers of the planet; many of these prospective candidates seek adventures in the final frontier of space, while others have taken the road of cynicism, destitute about Earth and its endless cycles of hate, war, and famine.
Stanaforth will be the among the first to colonize the red planet; prospective candidates seek adventures in the new frontier, while others have gone the road of cynicism, destitute about Earth and its endless cycles of hate, war, and famine.
Not far behind, on a separate craft, Emily Maddox (Sanaa Lathan) is also making her way to Mars, hot on Stanaforth’s heels, with plans to join him after he lands. But we know very little about her so she’s not that important to the film’s thin plot.
Because outer space is unpredictable and man-made machines fallible, things are destined to go wrong, and it’s Stanaforth’s stubbornness and his cockiness at problem solving that serve to place him in grave danger. Needless to say, his water system, which has been installed on his ship as a sustainable water source, has gone kaput because of human and mechanical error. Foolishly, Stanaforth keeps this important detail hidden from “Skinny” (played by Luke Wilson), his man-in-charge back in Houston, gambling his own life in the vastness of space and relying on the success of his problem solving abilities.
Approaching the Unknown is a film about a mission to Mars, only without Mars, focusing instead on the idea of the planet as a utopian blank slate where humanity could begin anew. But as Stanaforth’s mission shows, as idealistic as this utopian wonderland may sound, the instability of technology, human nature, and forces of the universe have a way of crashing down at any moment.
What is supposed be a character study on the effects of loneliness quickly becomes tired, stretching what little the film has to offer into something, whatever that may entail. The film lacks probing philosophy and failure to explore the complexity of human emotion, never saying much beyond the generic scenario that humans cannot survive in loneliness.
With very little backstory or context Approaching the Unknown feels distant with characters, who are supposed to be the inheritors of Mars, appearing emotionally unqualified to take on such a role surrounded by the vast loneliness of space, where loneliness is much more apparent.
Especially for someone like Stanaforth, who is bent at fixing any problem regardless of the consequences and whose actions are passively-reckless, trusting himself more than he does safety precautions and protocol. Stanaforth is so driven and dedicated to his quest to Mars that he’s willing to partake in life-threatening risks to accomplish this, which makes little sense considering he’s traveling through space in a ship, with very little chance of survival outside of that ship.
Despite a potent lead in Mark Strong, Approaching the Unknown lacks a probing curiosity that would have added to its basic plotting and intriguing premise. Here’s a film that purports to think big, yet never manages to ask the more interesting questions, offering little in the way of wonder and amazement. Save for a few scenes worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey towards the end, what’s left is contemplative science-fiction left without a clear philosophy that has, in fact, approached the unknown.