'Passage to Mars': Film Review

Courtesy of Green Flash Pictures
An attractive doc whose self-importance is disproportionate to its value for space-exploration buffs.
9/30/2016

Zachary Quinto adds a heap of gravitas to this journal of a Mars-prep expedition in the High Arctic.

Nobody gets to the red planet in Passage to Mars, or even tries to. Rather, the subjects of Jean-Christophe Jeauffre's grandiose documentary are on a grueling trek through the Arctic, driving an experimental rover to Devon Island, a research site for potential Mars missions of the future. But that doesn't keep team leader Pascal Lee from feeling like he's an integral part of humanity's giant interplanetary leap, and this attractive film plays along, hiring Zachary Quinto to read Lee's journals with even more drama than he'd bring to a captain's log if Spock subbed for Kirk in the next Star Trek adventure. Quinto and an Elon Musk-fueled resurgence of interest in Mars may attract some attention here, but this is a minor (if death-defying) chapter in the ongoing story that has meager box-office prospects.

Lee leads a six-man team (two of whom are filmmakers) which hopes to drive the Okarian — a modified Humvee with tank-like treads — across the Northwest Passage to Devon Island before the winter sea ice melts. At Devon, the Okarian will be put through its paces in a vast, uninhabited desert terrain the Mars Institute uses to prep for long-term planetary exploration. But the challenges of this particular voyage — snowstorms, unseen obstacles, cracks in the ice — resemble those faced by Earthbound explorers like Ernest Shackleton more than what tomorrow's astronauts will encounter.

Jeauffre cuts lots of NASA-sourced Mars imagery into this icy story, drawing parallels between Arctic dangers and the sandstorms and isolation offered on that planet. Throughout, Quinto reads from Lee's journals, which alternate between musing on the possibility that Mars missions will find life (or proof of earlier life) and chronicling more pressing concerns: the truck tread that blows apart en route, for instance; the failing alternator; and the risky decision to split the team up in search of crucial supplies.

Any of the above could conceivably get the explorers killed, but danger doesn't quite translate into sustained drama here, in part because the reliance on voiceover distances us from the action. The doc's eagerness to spread the glory around, treating a years-in-advance bit of research as if it were almost the main event, will endear it to some Earthlings who yearn for the stars. But it also faces the risk of burning through moviegoers' enthusiasm before there's an actual mission to support.

Distributor: Sundance Selects
Production company: Jules Verne Adventures
Director-editor: Jean-Christophe Jeauffre
Screenwriters: Jean-Christophe Jeauffre, Pascal Lee
Producers: Jean-Christophe Jeauffre, Frederic Dieudonne
Director of photography: Mark Carroll
Composer: Steffen Schmidt

Not rated, 95 minutes

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