Feature debut of writer/director Mark Elijah Rosenberg, his ambition and vision cannot be faulted, the chronicle of Captain William D Stanaforth (Kingsman: The Secret Service‘s Mark Strong) and his solo mission aboard the Zephyr on its 270 day trip from the Earth to Mars to set up a permanent base with the equipment and material already in place. Others will join him but he is the pioneer, quite literally approaching the unknown.
“Mars is just a tiny dot in the sky forty million miles away. Nothing lives there, nothing has ever died there. But I’m going to bring it to life.” A bold mission statement, and it is entirely dependent on a technology Stanaforth himself has developed, a process which extracts hydrogen and oxygen from soil with the byproduct of power generation being water, solving two problems in one, if it is successful.
Between performing system diagnostics, Stanaforth conducts remote learning projects for students back on Earth and reviews application videos from the potential second wave of colonists, a montage of voices expressing the dreams and hopes and ideals of the project: “Great science will come from this mission, but even greater inspiration will come from the simple gesture of getting there.”
The modest budget never attempting to compete with the scope of The Martian, this is a contained story told within a finite space and the sets and effects are impressive examples of what can be achieved, a rocket take-off never failing to be spectacular, but with the rock and roll moment of launch over the daily routine on board the Zephyr quickly becomes just another job, a lonely job with rehydrated vegetables as the only reward, but as demonstrated in the Atacama desert where he refined his technology, Stanaforth is a stubborn maverick.
That resolve may be required; on his final supply rendezvous the two crew who maintain the station, Greenstreet and Worsely (Anders Danielsen Lie and Charles Baker), are quite obviously emotionally disturbed, whether from the isolation or the disappointment of the failure of their experiments, dead mice and dying plants. Will Stanaforth be stronger, will the Zephyr take him to his destination, will his experimental technology vindicate the faith on which he is risking his life?
While the achievement of Approaching the Unknown cannot be understated it is also a frustrating film, the attempt to achieve a veracity and an apparent honesty in the reasons and goals of deep space travel, colonisation of planetary bodies and the technical challenges in reaching them and establishing a foothold undermined by an astonishing ignorance of or perhaps disinterest in basic science.
That there is no lag in communication with the voice of mission control (The Royal Tenenbaums‘ Luke Wilson) despite the increasing distance from Earth can be read as an artistic contrivance often allowed in science fiction cinema simply to facilitate the narrative, but there is no such get-out clause for the profound violation of orbital mechanics necessary for the Zephyr to shed several thousand miles per hour of velocity, dock with a supply port, then simply reacquire the momentum without means of propulsion.
Conversely, one genuine phenomenon which is depicted accurately is the perception of cosmic rays passing through Stanaforth’s eyes, as reported by astronauts in orbit, but with the undeniably beautiful transit across the drifting veils of the solar system resembling nothing so much as the imagined realms of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain the move to a more fantastical realm sets the film irrevocably off course.
Where a cavalier approach to established fact was acceptable in the golden age of science fiction B-movies, Approaching the Unknown is presented as a serious minded meditation on what is required in order to undertake such a mission, why we as a species feel the need to explore, the risks and dangers inherent in any venture of this magnitude, yet the defiance of internal logic indicates that more flamboyant and forgiving era may be where it draws inspiration.
As increasingly detached from reality as Rosenberg’s script, Stanaforth never reaching the levels of psychosis of Pinbacker, Strong’s character from Sunshine, but with little sense of urgency it is inevitable that interest will drift as much as the Zephyr itself. A brave but misguided attempt to merge metaphysics and astrophysics, Approaching the Unknown unfortunately burns like a bad re-entry trajectory.