Review: MARS

Inventive low-budget sci-fi gets by on its charm

rating: 3

One of the more peculiar entries into this year's London Film Festival, Geoff Marslett's 'Mars' is packed with enough good humour and sly wit that it will hopefully fetch a distributor out of its brief stay in the nation's capital. Genuinely, it deserves a fate better than collecting dust, especially when its potential cult status is written all over it from frame one. Determined to finally discover whether there is life on Mars, NASA decides to send three astronauts there; dedicated scientists Hank Morrison (Paul Gordon) and Dr. Casey Cook (Zoe Simpson), and slacker Charlie Brownsville (mumblecore master himself, Mark Duplass), who is strung along for the mere sake of posterity, using his television-friendly appearance and demeanour to keep audiences tuning in. Through countless obstacles, and with little help from their NASA ground support officer, Shep (Howe Gelb), they struggle to miraculously not only make it to Mars, but also make it back in one piece. 'Mars' is a film with a truly uncanny look; the distractingly low frame-rate (which takes a little adjusting to) suggests that this is an animation, but in fact it is rotoscoped, a painstaking post-production process in which each live action frame is essentially traced over in a given style, most commonly in order to simulate a sophisticated pseudo-animated look or comic-book aesthetic, as in Richard Linklater's 'Waking Life' and 'A Scanner Darkly'. Though not a touch as well-crafted as either, and unspeakably rough around the edges, 'Mars' is a solid achievement given the paltry $450,000 budget. The film's very first scene - in which a janitor sneezes a big green loogie all over a payload about to go into space - sets the tone that is to follow, that is to say, one of broad goofiness, albeit with an occasional fleck of quirky smarts. Fundamentally, 'Mars' is a sci-fi comedy of errors - with the personality clash of the ship's trio making for some awkward situations - but Marslett peppers his screenplay with plenty of incisive moments, disguised well by their innate silliness. For starters, the U.S. President (played wonderfully straight by cult figure Kinky Friedman) is a card-carrying redneck, accompanied by a jive-talking press secretary, while the film's NASA scientists, though unquestionably bright, are shown to be blinded by their enthusiasm, mistaking a scouter robot's control module for a possible UFO. Marslett cossets his subversion gently into the sci-fi scenario, such that it never seems as though he is trying to be didactic, despite lampooning Western (chiefly American) arrogance with toothy flair. Perhaps it is that Marslett shoots for wide targets that he never comes across as smarmy or self-important; there is never the impression that he is trying to change our hearts or minds, but simply that he is trying to tell an imaginative sci-fi story with a splash of amusing political currency. Similarly, his satirical take on entertainment news outlets - which here depict their viewers as only "momentarily spellbound" by the extraordinary event of space travel, to the point that they begin betting on which astronaut will die first - is hardly new, but under the sci-fi tenet and captured in this irregular style, it works. The broad humour is agreeable, and some of the artistic flourishes achieved on such a meagre budget are commendable, but one must not forget the very human performances in lieu of the unique, computer-aided style. The star of the show is the aforementioned Paul Gordon as the delightfully drole Hank - perhaps the only scientist to ever be disappointed with seeing what Mars looks like up close - though most of the supporting players each get their own little moment; Friedman is handed many zingers as the President, while Howe Gelb's breaking of some late-day bad news to the group is hilariously blunt. The trio's time on 'Mars' actually accounts for very little of the film, yet as is famously said, "it is the journey, not the destination". Thankfully, writer-director Marslett makes the journey a charmingly offbeat one, complemented by a visual style that sets itself apart from even its (admittedly better-crafted) Hollywood counterparts.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at]