While he'd much rather visit Planet Claire or the Planet of the Prehistoric Women, Judge Bill Gibron kind of enjoyed this rover romp across the angry red planet.
Our review of Roving Mars (Blu-Ray), published August 9th, 2007, is also available.
The Ultimate Adventure…Journey to the Surface of the Red Planet
Since man first walked on the moon, exploring the farthest reaches of outer space has been a goal of postmodern society. The desire to know what exists beyond our own horizons, to learn more about the history of the universe and how it was formed, has driven many a scientist to experiment and many an engineer to excel. Over nearly four decades since our closest celestial neighbor was conquered, unmanned missions to far-off worlds have given us insight into such unlikely locales as Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Venus. But the current trends all point toward Mars. A planet looming large in the factual and fictional considerations of the cosmos, there is hope that, one day, Earth will send its citizens to its desolate vistas to explore them personally. Until then, robotic probes, known as rovers, have been scouring the planet, looking for clues to its past and its potential. The explanation for how such an accomplishment is achieved forms the basis of this intriguing documentary.
Clocking in at a mere 40 minutes, and lacking much of the visual scope an IMAX presentation would have in its original viewing circumstances, Roving Mars comes across as a well-meaning shill for NASA's ongoing obsession with the angry red planet. Centering on the 2003 mission that sent Mars Exploration Rovers "Opportunity" and "Spirit" into space, this detailed documentary wants to be a nail-biting bit of real science fact and suspense. We meet the individuals responsible for the technologically advanced mechanical scouts, and as they describe their goals in intrinsic specificity, we watch as lots of people in white suits play interstellar tinker toys. Outside of the grand design and cosmic consideration, we learn little about the actual building of these multi-billion dollar robo-geologists. Indeed, principal investigator (typical U.S. bureaucrat-speak for head scientist) Steve Squyres makes it all sound like smoke and mirrors, a guessing game given over to repetitive reproduction in order to make sure this technological marvel doesn't blow a gasket while probing our fellow world's surface. If this assessment sounds cynical, it's because Roving Mars dresses up everything in unwarranted amounts of defeatism. Since the mission took place nearly four years ago, we have some sense it's been a success (after all, why make a 70mm movie about a costly interplanetary voyage that flopped). As a result, all the heroic hemming and hawing sounds like nothing more than reverse=engineered hype. We're traveling out into the universe, people—who knows what we'll find there.
Granted, the CGI utilized to explain the Rover's raison d'etre, as well as the impossible angles of it actually scooting along the Mars horizon, do look very good. Indeed, when incorporated with actual footage from the vehicles, we get a nice "you are there" experience. But then the narration has to go and ruin the awe by turning everything into a series of rah-rah cheerleading challenges. When Spirit lands in a lake bed covered in volcanic rock, the storyline sounds the death knell. It's as if anything outside the primary research parameters of the mission are tantamount to abject failure. But then the valiant little bucket of bolts ventures many miles outside its tech specifications and winds up winning the day. It's like the Brave Little Toaster Goes to Space Camp. Similarly, Opportunity makes discoveries that, when extrapolated out in almost indecipherable geological terms, mean that Mars once contained pockets and pools of water. Roving acts like the device discovered the existence of God. We even get a rather nifty imaginary view of what the old red orb would have looked like with its various puddles in place. Before we know it, both machines are defying the odds and pitching in like perfect team players. Even dust and damaging winds can't stop these metallic mavericks from continuing their cause.
Like one of those "sponsored by Monsanto" infomercials that played before the actual Disney World attraction began, Roving Mars is not bad—it's just dopey and disingenuous. It doesn't really want to teach us about the nature of space. Instead, it's all feel-good vibes and anthropomorphized antics. When removed from its giant screen 3D dynamic, reduced down to standard television boundaries, it loses all of its majesty. Mars no longer offers a sense of interstellar wonder. Instead, it plays like the backlot for a remake of Capricorn One. There is no denying the good intentions of the people behind this well-meaning movie. They want to instill a sense of spectacle and curiosity about the cosmic realm around us, and the Carl Sagan-like expressions of duty and determination really sell us on their stance. There is also a clear call for further funding, hoping to make the goal of a manned mission to Mars a reality one day. Still, it's hard to say who will cotton to such a watered down, sanitized slice of science fact. IMAX can make even the most ludicrous concept seem literally larger than life. Roving Mars requires much more than size to sustain its ideas on the small screen. The Discovery Channel and its numerous affiliated offshoots do this kind of thing in their sleep each and every single day—and they usually do it better.
Offered by Disney in a wonderful DVD package, Roving Mars looks very good in its miniaturized transfer. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image (there's also a 1.33:1 full-screen option, but why bother?) is sharp, clear, and loaded with detail. The colors are sensational and the overall look is vibrant and alive. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix also provides some interesting aural elements. The back speakers seem to channel true spatial ambience while the conversations are easily understood. As for bonus content, we are treated to two intriguing featurettes. The first focuses on the main feature, and gives us a chance to hear more from the individuals responsible for the 2003 mission. Entitled Mars: Past, Present and Future, it also allows young people who participate in the Imagine Mars program a chance to be heard as well. After all, as the film points out, it's the eight- and nine-year-olds of today who'll be eventually walking on the red planet.
But the real reason to buy this otherwise ordinary disc is the inclusion of the 1957 episode of Disneyland featuring the absolutely fabulous animated effort Mars and Beyond. This 50-some minutes of surrealism and old-school cartoon bliss follows three distinct narrative designs. First, all the science on the subject—from Copernicus to Eisenhower-era breakthroughs—is lovingly illustrated by the House of Mouse's crackerjack staff. As the venerable Paul Frees walks us through the various theories and philosophies, Walt Kimball's crew keeps us constantly entertained. Then we move on to the notion of life on other worlds and the theory of evolution (apparently there's no creationism in space). As the standard amoeba to ape angle is explored, we suddenly shift to a discussion of what creatures on other planets might look like. During this feeding frenzy Fantasia, the Disney artists outdo themselves in outrageous physiological concepts and equally otherworldly designs. It's a memorable journey into the world of exotic extraterrestrials. Finally, a semi-serious look at how a real Mission to Mars would play out is provided. Using up-to-date information and unusual transportation approaches (including a strange solar umbrella ship), we get the pre-Apollo prototype for travel to a distant world. Just for this stellar presentation alone, Roving Mars is worth a purchase. If you own The Walt Disney Treasures—Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond box set, it's already part of your collection.
So there you have it. An IMAX movie shrunk down to DVD size. An engaging documentary undermined by genial generic science speak. A wonderful example of Disney's animated past buried as part of the bonus features. If you need to know about the Earth's arid twin, Roving Mars will satisfy only some of your cosmic curiosity. But it's the added content that really elevates this otherwise passable presentation.
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Scales of Justice
• "Mars: Past, Present and Future" Featurette
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