Approaching the Unknown is the story of a one-way trip to Mars. I watched the movie as one of many people on Earth who would consider a solo, never-to-return trip to the cosmos. I don’t know what the appeal is of that. Science? Not for me. Personally speaking, I live my life unencumbered by any notion of the supernatural, but I’m no scientist either. Don’t get me wrong, the universe to me is a vast and wondrous place, but I don’t have the mind or discipline to exist from one day to the next carrying out one mundane experiment after another. Yet the idea of sailing off into oblivion by myself appeals to me. Instead of the dull monotony of the reality, I imagine myself in a plain, but comfortable environment, where I have enough things to do to pass the time, and a big picture window to show me the heavens in all their majesty. It’s a fool’s dream, but one I share with many. This movie plays into that fanciful, comfy pioneering spirit in one key scene, where Stanaforth (Mark Strong) watches videos made by some people who wish to offer themselves up for this same kind of sacrificial trip.
I say this about myself, because I know that kind of trip inevitably sounds a lot better than what would actually happen: boredom would set in quickly, things break and require extensive pre-launch technical training in order to fix them, because if you don’t fix things in space, you die. Even a kinked hose, or a blown fuse can potentially lead to doom. The life or death reality of space travel isn’t something we particularly want to acknowledge, so it remains a dream. Even when these realities are turned into movies, they’re much more palatable when the actor is someone we root for, like Matt Damon in The Martian, or Sandra Bullock in Gravity, or Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, because we understand the events are enhanced, made more exciting by the presence of familiar faces – even though Apollo 13 is an ill-fated mission, the comforting presence of Hanks turns it into an emotional adventure full of dramatic musical cues and sad Hollywood moments. In Approaching the Unknown, the audience gets Mark Strong playing astronaut William Stanaforth, a cold and unfriendly protagonist that’s all business from launch day, and this is the biggest problem the movie has.
I happen to like Strong – I find him to be a highlight of any movie he appears in, but whether he possesses it in real life or not, onscreen he exudes little natural sense of charm. Facially, he looks more like Nosferatu’s more handsome brother. He’s no Matt Damon, who looks like the kind of guy you could down some beer with, or Sandra Bullock, the chick at work you might secretly crush on, or Tom Hanks, who’s like the brother or uncle you enjoy seeing once a while. Mark Strong is more like the guy leading that meeting you have to attend at work, but this kind of movie rises or falls on not just believing in the reality of the movie, but also identifying with and rooting for the protagonist who is in jeopardy. At no time did I ever really care what was happening to Stanaforth as he goes through a series of mostly predictable and familiar plot points, and his situation becomes more and more perilous. Very early on, the lack of warmth and background detail of the character (and I don’t blame Strong for this – he never wrote the movie) just never settled me into an immersive viewing experience. Without knowing how the movie was going to develop or end, I was simply waiting to see what would break next, and what he’d do to fix things, but I was also curious to see if he would develop as a character. The unhappy truth of the movie is that cinematically, things take a turn for the worse early on, but then it sort of plateaus into a series of extremely similar scenes, and Stanaforth doesn’t respond with any kind of spirit or enthusiasm, and he has very little in the way of triumphant wins. He’s a dour character to begin with, who simply becomes less interesting as the movie progresses. I won’t say what happens at the end, but in a way, it almost invalidates the previous hour or so – it would be too much of a spoiler to give away plot details, but the ending was a real letdown for me, because there’s a sense that it could have happened with or without the preceding events of Act 2.
Some viewers might watch this and wonder what was going on with the visuals outside of the spacecraft, and I’ll confess that these were real head-scratching moments for me. It’s probably no stretch to say that the space between here and Mars – Hell, between here and anything in space is just massive voids of blackness. The stars don’t streak by like they do in Star Trek, they simply hang there, seemingly unmoving due to their incredible distance from us. Traveling from here to Mars is the Earthly equivalent of an ant walking from Paris to LA. Yet, writer/director Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s view of these tiny cosmological hops are crammed full of the most exotic, exciting imagery that a fanciful one-way-ticket astronaut like myself could imagine seeing through that big picture window. Instead of nothing but the sheer blackness of real space, Stanaforth’s spaceship flies through Kubrickian vistas of bright cosmic gases that roil like sentient storms. I wondered why, at first, that a small production like this, that seemed to want to stay so rooted in the real, serious side of space travel would have scenes like this of such false magnificent beauty, but by the time the movie was over I realized that like me, Rosenberg was only showing the space voyage that we dreamers want to see, and not the boring truth.