Comparisons to The Martian do this 2016 sci-fi thriller no favours, but Approaching the Unknown is a slow journey to Mars.
Debuting in June 2016, Approaching the Unknown, perhaps, sought to cash in on the success of the previous year’s big screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian which boasted Matt Damon on the lead role.
But lacking the budget, Hollywood A-list star and with a strictly limited cinematic release, including only four regions globally, (The U.S. being the most prominent) this sci-fi thriller was always destined to head straight to digital.
Regardless of it’s lack of presence in theatres, my interest was piqued enough by a trailer which promised tension, drama, and a sense of anxiety.
British actor Mark Strong (The Kingsmen, Sherlock, The Imitation Game) stars as William D. Stanaforth, a U.S. astronaut, outward bound on a 270 day, one-way mission to become the first man on Mars. Stanaforth leads a staggered effort towards colonising the Red Planet.
Moral and technical support for Stanaforth comes in the form of Louis ‘Skinny’ Skinner (Luke Wilson) as CapCom for the mission. Wilson’s casting in itself feels like a strange decision. The actor is more commonly associated with comedy roles and delivers his lines in a style that comes across as ‘chipper’, yet pleading. The tone is jarring against the serious nature of the rest of the film. In addition ‘Skinny’ appears to operate from an open plan office that would serve sufficiently as a sales call centre, but lacks the impact of what should be the heart of (one would presume) NASA’s primary mission at that time.
In contrast, Mark Strong provides a wholly convincing performance in the lead conveying a dramatic change in the constitution of Stanaforth as the mission proceeds.
Assertive, confident and determined at the outset, the actor conveys a sense of excitement in-keeping with the gravitas of the achievement that lays ahead. But as frustration with his repetitive routine sets in, his persistent tinkering in a bid to alleviate boredom results in a mistake that threatens the mission. Hiding his failure from CapCom, Stanaforth sets about rectifying his error, but each passing day brings the mission closer to critical failure.
Made for a reported $1.3 Million, Approaching the Unknown is a testament to budget filmmaking. Writer and director Mark Elijah Rosenberg makes the most of the resources available to him and visually, (other than Luke Wilson sat behind a desk) the film looks good.
Sadly, a strong lead and a great aesthetic can’t distract from the interminably slow pace. With a runtime of just 90 minutes Approaching the Unknown is not a long film, yet it feels twice that. As the film takes a bleak turn Stanaforth’s persona becomes less engaging. Limited variation in sets promotes viewer fatigue and a lack of action for extended periods results in a slow and steady progression towards the conclusion which deserves a greater sense of drama.
Approaching the Unknown carries a three star rating on Netflix which is fair. It’s not a bad film, in fact there’s a lot to admire – if you can stay awake throughout.
Currently available to stream on Netflix (UK).