Saturday, 17 December 2016

Approaching The Unknown (2016) - Movie Review

The plot: Captain William Stanaforth (Mark Strong) is on a solo mission to Mars as a prelude to a colonization attempt of the planet. While he can keep himself busy by taking care of his invention that can produce water from soil, and keeping in contact with Houston through mission controller Skinny (Luke Wilson), the isolation on-board the vessel does start to get to him. However, it’s only once the water reactor starts to malfunction that things start to take a real turn for the worst.

This is a small cast and, both by design and as a result of the performances given, Mark Strong ends up carrying most of the film by himself. His interpretation of the mechanically obsessed scientist highlights both the character’s definite care for his work as well as the effect of loneliness in space quite well. Anders Danielsen Lie and Charles Barker as two other cosmonauts that Stanaforth encounters are a good showcasing of the usual cinematic dehumanising mindset of space-age civilisation, but don’t really end up being all that engaging as presences in this film on their own.

Sanaa Lathan as another cosmonaut that Stanaforth helps make repairs to her own ship only gets a few token lines, and again not leaving that much of an impact. The Wilson brothers have a memetic reputation for awkward line deliveries, and with how that stays consistent with Luke’s performance in this film, it ends up unintentionally going against one of the key thematic aspects of the story. Again, this is another situation why I highlight the casts as much as I do in my reviews because, when it falls short, it can seriously end up hurting the final product.

Through Captain Stanaforth, this starts out as a more logistical approach on the exploration of space, looking at one of the most basic requirements for a human being to survive anywhere on Earth, let alone in space, and what is necessary in order to acquire it. I’m not going to pretend that I am nearly informed enough when it comes to science, and I have been proven wrong on matters like this in films before, but the reactor turning soil into drinkable water frankly comes across more like alchemy than legit science. But whatever, I can let that pass considering it’s probably the only impossible thing surrounded by a lot of grounding in reality. It’s incredibly low-key as well, taking what has become expected of Netflix-release budgeting and managing to make it stand on its own as an economical but still reasonable depiction of an object in space.

Stanaforth, by his own admission, considers the dilemma of how humanity can survive in space as a matter of basic engineering. With the right equipment at the ready and the right people capable of making sure said equipment stays running, the journey to the stars is feasible. However, this is a fairly simplistic and utilitarian view on the human mindset when it comes to space travel. Yeah, the equipment should be able to keep its users alive physically, but what about mentally? Interaction with other humans is one of our most innate needs, and in the harrowing and vast emptiness of space, the reassurance that you aren’t hurtling through space alone is incredibly important.

Now, I bring this up not because of its absence in the film, but because of its importance. Over the course of the film, the technically-minded Stanaforth ends up having to learn about this incrementally, resulting in some subtle touches to show how his desperation for social activity starts to get to him. Strong may have issues in terms of portraying how enthused he is to be on the mission, in a scene where his voice-over shows greater emotion than he manages in the flesh, but as a performance about letting the unknown factors creep in and making him realise how important they are as opposed to the one area that he focuses in, he does a tremendous job at this.

Unfortunately, even for a downplayed iteration of man trying to survive outside of Earth, this ends up being a pretty dull sit. For all the script’s musings concerning isolation and how that in and of itself is linked to man’s survival, we just end up seeing a man tending to a technical doohickie for the majority of the film. I never thought I’d say this, especially considering how I like more sombre cinema when it’s done right, but I miss the kitsch of The Martian. I miss the injections of goofy disco music, I miss Matt Damon’s infectious optimism and, most of all, I miss the viewpoint that humanity must work together to make it beyond our atmosphere.

While this story ultimately serves the same thematic purpose as The Martian, that being how important the connection between humans is in this setting, its diametrically opposing take of showing the individual to emphasise the whole just isn’t nearly as gripping. It doesn’t help that casting Luke Wilson as our lead’s only consistent point of social interaction only manages to highlight how good it is not to talk to other people. And then there’s how the entire third act really doesn’t make any sense, feeling like a bunch of navel-gazing spectacle moments sticky-taped together to create some semblance of a denouement.

All in all, despite Mark Strong’s best efforts, this just isn’t all that interesting a take on what should be a compelling story. The pieces are all here to make for a nice downbeat counterpoint to Ridley Scott’s The Martian, but between a weak and aimless script, a lack of real emotional action and a finale that just doesn’t fit next to the rest of the production, they fail to connect into a cohesive whole.

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