The Good: Some of the cinematography, Zachary Quinto's voiceovers are fine
The Bad: Melodramatic writing, Poor blend of special effects and actual NASA footage, Tone
The Basics: Passage To Mars is a quasi-documentary that explores how humans are training in the Arctic to better explore Mars when the time comes.
Every now and then, I encounter a film that makes me just say, "What the hell?!" Tonight, that film is Passage To Mars. Passage To Mars is a quasi-documentary; it is a film about product testing vehicles and devices for Mars exploration in the Arctic. I write "quasi-documentary" because the film's tone is very much not one of a documentary - it is not a film that pretends to be dispassionate, it intends to excite viewers. From an opening text block that tells viewers that they are now part of space exploration to Mars to Zachary Quinto's use of slang and a casual sound for his narration, Passage To Mars tries to sensationalize instead of simply inform viewers.
To be fair, Passage To Mars is being released after blockbusters like The Martian (reviewed here!), which effectively blended science fiction with some sense of realism, which made for very entertaining visions of what exploring Mars could look like. Those are pretty big shoes to fill and a big film to compete with. But, despite including a lot of early footage of Mars, the vast majority of Passage To Mars is simply a team of people driving across the Arctic ice.
Pascal Lee is in the High Arctic testing an attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage in order to better prepare for a manned mission to Mars, this time driving with an experimental vehicle across the ice. A team with the massive experimental vehicle, an ATV and a camera vehicle spend April trying to cross the Northwest Passage.
Passage To Mars is a mess, masquerading as a documentary. Zachary Quinto provides voiceovers of Mission Leader Pascal Lee's journals. But Lee's journals are both not always noteworthy observations or scientifically helpful commentary. For example, at one point, Lee muses that the nature of Earth's ice has changed and he broaches for the briefest of moments the idea of climate change. And yet, Lee then asks if Mars suffered from a similar climate change that altered its water. Well, no . . . because climate change on Earth that can be measured from when human explorers started attempting to traverse the Northwest Passage is the result of human ecological destruction. So, no, Mars would not have had the same type of change.
Despite how the film is billed, Passage To Mars is not even about realistically preparing for a manned mission to Mars. The voiceovers tell viewers that managing dust will be one of the most difficult complications of exploring Mars. And yet, the scientists in the expedition go outside in their coats and after the revelation of dust being a problem, the scientists in the expedition are not seen testing any equipment that would help eliminate that problem. Come to think of it, Passage To Mars never explains how a vehicle that runs on diesel (i.e. using combustion by bringing in oxygen) is supposed to work on a planet without an oxygen atmosphere.
The longer Passage To Mars goes on and the exploratory team encounters bad weather, electrical failures, and incessant voiceovers, it is hard for the viewer not to let their mind drift to the point that they are asking, "If something goes horribly wrong, is there some sort of airlift that could rescue the people at least? And hey, if they wanted to test more variables, why doesn't NASA do its product testing for Mars exploration on the moon?"
Ultimately, Passage To Mars makes it impossible to care. The film is a long, long stretch of people driving on ice with Zachary Quinto hypnotically discussing Mars. If it were not for the quality of the cinematography and the fact that Quinto actually performs the voiceovers to make the viewer believe that someone is actually interested in what he is saying, this movie would have been an absolute bust.
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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