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As any kind of art critic it’s not a great or comfortable feeling to be looking at something and thinking, “Boy, I wish this could just be less ambitious.” But I thought that several times watching National Geographic Channel’s Mars.
The six-part event series obscures a reasonably engrossing, science-star-studded documentary about future exploration of the Red Planet with a far less interesting scripted drama about Mars travel that plays as basically The Martian without the personality or poop potatoes. It takes a while to settle into the structural and narrative rules of Mars, and by the end of the second episode sent to critics, I’d decided that the scripted segments were doing nothing to enhance the documentary, and the documentary was just being utilized as an emotional cheat for the scripted story.
Air date: Nov 14, 2016
The credits of Mars give a sense of both the attempted reach, but also the lack of clear driving focus. Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Michael Rosenberg are executive producers and Mexican helmer Everardo Gout (Days of Grace) directed the scripted parts, but there are credits for “created by,” “developed by,” “story by” and “teleplay by” with at least six different names and it’s all based, at least somewhat, on Stephen Petranek’s book How We’ll Live on Mars. My sense is that it took a lot of somebodies to come up with a structure and approach to the miniseries, but they needed at least two or three more writers if they wanted characters and adventure worth following in the speculative fiction segment.
Mars breaks down like this: In 2033, the International Mars Science Foundation has sent the Daedalus off on the first manned mission to colonize Mars. That crew is led by Ben Sawyer (familiar Canadian character actor Ben Cotton) and also features a Nigerian mechanical engineer (Sammi Rotibi’s Robert Foucault), a systems engineer whose twin works back at mission control (Jihae as both Hana and Joon), a Spanish geochemist (Alberto Ammann’s Javier Delgado), a French biologist (Clementine Poidatz’s Amelie Durand) and a Russian geologist (Anamaria Marinca’s Marta Kamen). It’s a draining seven-month journey to Mars and that’s before things get really difficult, which brings us to …
In 2016, a series of real-life experts take us through what the biggest challenges are likely to be for the first Mars colonization mission, as well as the inherent perils of space travel. Those experts include usual space-y suspects like James Lovell and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a host of JPL and NASA engineers and administrators, several Mars enthusiasts including The Martian scribe Andy Weir, plus everybody’s favorite dreamboat billionaire industrialist Elon Musk, whose SpaceX program is getting one heck of an extended commercial/fundraising pitch here.
The 2016 documentary material initially isn’t revelatory, but it’s consistently informative and accompanied by reliable archival space program footage and future-skewing blueprints. At it progresses I found myself becoming slightly invested in SpaceX rocket tests that I already knew the results of, as well as the impact of Scott Kelly’s year in space experiments.
The real stuff is meant to be juxtaposed with the fictionalized story, but only exposes how dull it is. The first episode parallels that SpaceX rocket test with a Mars landing that presumably is only possible because of Musk’s advancements, but while I found myself rooting for the SpaceX test, the fictional landing stirred up nothing for me. Similarly, in the second episode, I didn’t care at all about Sawyer’s life-and-death medical struggle — he’s introduced in rough shape in the premiere, so that’s not a spoiler — but Kelly’s actual mission and particularly the interviews with his young daughter Charlotte got me choked up.
There should be push and pull between the two segments. The 2016 stuff should add factual credibility to the 2033 speculation and the quick-cutting mixture of tense close-ups and reasonably decent special effects in the 2033 segments should add urgency to the 2016 parts. Instead, it’s a one-way street. The 2016 stuff delivers factual grounding, which is fine, but it’s also forced to humanize one-dimensional scripted characters, which ought not be the case. That’s what the writing is for.
NatGeo had Andy Weir available, so maybe they should have handed him the opening teleplays so that any of the characters had anything that would make them likable and empathetic. Yes, readers and moviegoers liked The Martian because it was incredibly wonky and felt plausible, but I assure you that there are countless books about space travel that don’t become out-of-nowhere best-sellers and Oscar nominated blockbusters. What made The Martian work was that it was funny and it took no fewer than five pages before I was invested in whether or not Mark Watney survived. The crew of the Daedalus is resolutely and exclusively “determined” and that’s the only personality that anybody exhibits, even with “pre-flight interviews” which are designed to let us know the characters out of the pressure-filled mission, but fail completely.
Cotton comes closest to inhabiting his character in a fleshed-out way, but I’m not sure if that’s a product of flashbacks or associations with his work in countless Vancouver-based TV shows. Jihae, a multihyphenate musician and humanitarian, comes the closest to getting anything interesting to play, with her dual roles, but neither Hana nor Joon would be a rich roles on their own. The other actors capture the multinational nature of this mission and definitely make it look like they’re worried about successfully landing on Mars. And bonus points if you can figure out why Olivier Martinez, who appeared to be on the brink of a certain kind of stardom after The Horseman on the Roof and Unfaithful, offers nothing as the CEO of the corporation that launched the Daedalus.
NatGeo promotional material hails director Gout as a “visionary,” but it’s hard to be a visionary, or to build any sort of storytelling momentum, when everything you’re trying to direct is being cut to fit around interviews with science nerds. Mars looks very pretty in HD, but not pretty in any way that’s exciting or fresh. With The Martian and Mission to Mars and Red Planet, moviegoers have spent a lot of time on expensively rendered, presumably meticulously researched versions of Mars, and none of the NatGeo experts convey any insight into whether Gout’s version of the terrain is meant to be different or notable or more realistic. It’s all the same rocks and dunes.
The blending of scripted and non-scripted elements in Mars is supposed to be what sets it apart as innovative, but some viewers will remember that NatGeo initially approached its Killing franchise in the same way, with both talking heads and reenactments, neither completely successful. NatGeo subsequently figured out that adapting Bill O’Reilly’s series with scripts was the correct approach. I get that the producers of Mars didn’t want this event pigeon-holed as “another NatGeo docuseries,” but there’s much to be said for identifying what works and emphasizing it.
Airdate: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic Channel)
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