‘Approaching the Unknown’: Film Review

Mark Strong plays an astronaut on an ill-fated mission to Mars in Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s outer space-set drama.

A lone astronaut is forced to science the shit out of a potentially disastrous problem on a mission to Mars. No, it’s not a certain box-office blockbuster (and according to the Golden Globes, comedy) directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Rather, it’s Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s considerably lower-budgeted and thoughtful variation on the theme that has the unfortunate timing to arrive not long after The Martian. But even if that wasn’t the case, Approaching the Unknown would still feel awfully familiar.

Mark Strong (has a movie star this square-jawed ever been more aptly named?) delivers a virtual solo performance as Captain William D. Stanaforth, an astronaut on a one-manned voyage to Mars from which he knows he will never return. His mission is to set up a colony on the heretofore uninhabitable planet, using the technology he developed that makes water from dirt (why that feat of scientific engineering isn’t being put to use in, say, California, is a question left unaddressed).

The Bottom Line

It’s ‘The Martian’ without the laughs or the thrills.

RELEASE DATE Jun 03, 2016

Stanaforth has very little contact with the outside world. He briefly joins up with a space station inhabited by two long-serving, shell-shocked astronauts (Anders Danielsen Lie, Charles Baker), one of whom advises him to abort his mission before adding, not too convincingly, “Just kidding.” The captain also answers questions from students in a video interview; chats with another astronaut (a barely seen Sanaa Lathan) who’s piloting a spacecraft trailing him; and mostly communicates with “Skinny” (Luke Wilson), his concerned contact at Mission Control seen in flickering video.

Sluggishly paced and featuring lengthy voiceover narration by Strong in which his character ponders his role in the universe like a graduate philosophy student, the film never achieves liftoff. Although the comparison is as unfair as it is inevitable, Strong’s stolid space traveler simply isn’t as much fun to spend time with as Damon’s far more jocular and charismatic one. Watching Stanaforth vigorously work out, painstakingly maintain his spaceship and take Spanish lessons (not that he’ll have much opportunity to speak the language where he’s going) quickly proves monotonous. And when his water supply becomes contaminated, the mission becomes imperiled and he seems on the verge of cracking up, the emotional stakes feel strangely non-existent.

At times reminiscent of such far superior space-themed films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Silent Running and the Sam Rockwell-starrer Moon, Approaching the Unknown is impressive on a technical level, especially considering that its budget is low and that it’s a debut effort. But in space you don’t get graded on a curve.

Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Production companies: 3311 Productions, Loveless, Rooftop Films, TideRock Media
Cast: Mark Strong, Luke Wilson, Sanaa Lathan, Anders Danielsen Lie, Charles Baker
Director-screenwriter: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Producers: Jason Michael Berman, P. Jennifer Dana, Thomas B. Fore, Josh Penn, Mark Roberts
Executive producers: John Hinkson, Ross Jacobson, Richard Loughran, Sheldon Rabinowitz, Eddie Vaisman
Director of photography: Adam Newport-Berra
Production designer: Steven Brower
Editors: David Barker, Darrin Navarro, Marc Vives
Costume designer: Anney Perrine
Composer: Paul Damian Hogan
Casting: Susan Shopmaker

Rated R, 90 minutes