Indie movies have the potential to surprise and enthrall you. But most of the time, they are pretty awful. That is the case with Approaching the Unknown. While the previously reviewed movie Andron was a clear knockoff of Hunger Games and Maze Runner, Approaching the Unknown is a weak copy of The Martian.
The movie is the directorial and writing debut of Mark Elijah Rosenberg. It stars Mark Strong and Luke Wilson, which gives it some star power but probably not enough for most movie goers. It is about an astronaut on his 200+ day voyage to Mars all by himself in a small ship. During the journey, his water filtration system breaks down and he struggles to fix it. Despite the life-threatening crisis, he refuses to turn back.
The movie tries to play up Mark Strong’s struggle for survival, will to live, and his desire for accomplish his mission to sacrifice for a cause greater than himself. He is on a one way trip to Mars, as the advance team to help prepare the planet for colonization. So, he was already sacrificing himself and a life on Earth for the mission. When he runs into problems he decides it isn’t worth giving up and turning back. Might as well try to complete the mission. The calm music, quiet setting, and some periodic shots of the many colors of space, all give a beautiful but desolate feel. Luke Wilson is mission control but sounds more like a pushy building contractor than a NASA flight control director.
The desolation, survival instinct, all of which helped make Castaway and The Martian fascinating movies just isn’t enough to make Approaching the Unknown watchable. First off, in Castaway you learn a lot about Tom Hanks’ life before being marooned on the island. You see him overcome several challenges, rather than fail to solve one. You do not get that with Mark Strong’s character. Second, The Martian follows the efforts of NASA and its affiliate agencies and allies to help save Mark Watney. Approaching the Unknown completely lacks this facet. You end up with a one-dimensional story that becomes painfully boring.
While I can see what Rosenberg was trying to accomplish, it was just too long and drawn out. This would’ve worked better as a short or something in the 30-60 minute range rather than a full-length movie (running time around 95 minutes). Either that or include more of his previous experiences back on Earth or maybe, I don’t know, give one of the other characters a little bit more screen time.
I also need to point out the obvious plausibility issue: the characters do not act like astronauts. This is a common issue with space travel movies. Mark Strong’s character acts like a scientist who volunteered to be an astronaut but is clearly not well-suited for it. There is also the question of why NASA would send a one-man mission to Mars, a trip that takes almost a year. I doubt a space agency would trust one person with something so important, let alone the obvious psychological problems that may arise from being isolated and alone for that long. They also send two one-man ships in sequence rather than one ship with two. That makes no sense to me. The explanations provided in the film are all pretty flimsy, suggesting no one bothered to do much research. Instead, the mission plans were all designed and crafted with Rosenberg’s story in mind, not plausibility.
I would say Approaching the Unknown has more going for it than Andron but is still pretty bad. I cannot recommend it.
Paulie Spiceflow is a regular contributor, movie reviewer and unbelievable smart ass. He prides himself on his excessive knowledge of movies, TV, books, internet memes, and pop cultural references. During college, he spent minimal hours studying but took full-advantage of the free internet and lack of bills to broaden his knowledge in numerous genres including spoof comedy, fantasy, Shakespeare, military history, zombies, and cartoons.