‘Mars’ answers the pressing question: Like, dude, what if we sent three slacker astronauts to Mars?

November 21, 2012

When I was in my 20s, I had a friend who decided that he might make a really great comedian, or at least a great comic writer. I recall numerous occasions (including New York City subway rides) when he would recount various ideas for comic sketches that he wanted to submit to Saturday Night Live. 

The only concept that I recall clearly involved an ATM for a sperm bank where patrons could make convenient withdrawals and (Wait for it! Wait for it!) deposits.

However good this notion may have been, increased exposure did nothing to increase the fondness that I and my other friends had for it. Hearing the concept described in public settings, such as the subway, were especially uncomfortable.

That memory came to mind the other night when I watched Mars, a quasi-animated feature written and directed by Geoff Marslett. (More on the meaning of “quasi-animated” later.) This independent picture is best described by — well, pick your favorite adjective for indie movies: quirky, offbeat, eccentric, unusual, eclectic, original…

The main storyline involves Charlie Brownsville, Hank Morrison and Dr. Casey Cook. In 2015, they crew Minerva I, the first manned expedition to the red planet. A subplot features Beagle 2, the real-life probe that crashed while attempting to land on Mars in 2003, and a fictional follow-up explorer named Art. (That stands for autonomous rover technology.) Art disappears on Mars near the spot where Beagle did, frustrating the roboticist and European Space Agency officials tracking the newer mission.

NASA grows curious about this site. It changes Minerva’s mission, steering its landing craft toward the probes, where the astronauts might discover…something.

That’s all straightforward enough.  However, Marslett isn’t approaching the story squarely. Instead, he prefers to show how things might play out if most of those involved were slackers.

Therefore Mars has eccentric country-music singer Kinky Friedman playing the president of the United States in his own inimitable way; several characters, both male and female, switching from one hairstyle — often elaborate and nearly always ridiculous — to another from scene to scene; and logic being defied time and again.

Brownsville, the ostensible hero, is a supposedly excellent astronaut who chatters away endlessly about how he feels expendable because his colleagues are slated to land on Mars while he minds the orbiting spacecraft. The day before Minerva launches, Brownsville is introduced to two television hosts who will interview him daily during the mission. A moment later, as Brownsville is ranting about how the Beagle mission screw-up nearly killed Mars exploration, in walks Cook, who helped run Beagle. Brownsville, who should have been training for months before launch with his crew, has apparently never even seen a picture of one of the individuals with whom he will make history. 

Cook is a perfectly charming character but hardly convincing as a brilliant space scientist. At one point, while she’s filling in for Brownsville during one of his daily TV interviews, she is surprised to learn that Morrison has plowed his entire fortune into funding the Minerva expedition. That seems to be the kind of detail that only the most clueless astronaut would miss. It’s also odd that Morrison, who became rich as some kind of recycling or solid waste entrepreneur, is portrayed as a crackerjack space pilot. How did that happen?

After Minerva is critically damaged, their Earthbound liaison, Shep, laconically informs the crew that they have less than a day to live because their power-generating solar panel array failed to unfold as planned. Brownsville has to risk his life fixing the panels, in part because no one at NASA thought to outfit the spacecraft with a maneuvering pack that would allow astronauts to perform exterior repairs.

In short: None of this makes sense.

In other words, the humor at the heart of Marslett’s scenario was lost on me, and as much as I wanted to like this movie, I became increasingly disenchanted as it continued. The viewing experience reminded me of another situation from my past: Being on the periphery of a group as its members laughed uproariously at inside jokes. None of the comments were humorous on their face; the laughter was sparked by knowledge of the private references.

So maybe I’m just too square for Mars. Maybe it’s the kind of film that would only appeal to people who are part of the right circles in Austin, Texas, or in Portland, Ore. (Marslett teaches animation at his native state’s flagship university in Austin.) Either way, I found myself occasionally charmed but mostly perplexed and frustrated by the film.

I have no complaints about the cast, which is led by Mark Duplass as Brownville, Paul Gordon as Morrison and Zoe Simpson, a.k.a. Zoe Dean, as Cook. Friedman plays the president and fellow musician Howe Gelb, some of whose work appears on the film’s soundtrack, plays Shep, the hilariously laid back capsule communicator.

I earlier described the movie as quasi-animated; the proper term for this technique may actually be rotoscoping. At any rate, in Mars, actors were shot against green-screens, after which footage was combined with animated backgrounds and animated or enhanced props; additionally, some features of the actors were altered to make them appear to have been drawn or partially drawn. From what I can gather, Mars shares some of the visual style of Richard Linklater’s  2006 picture, A Scanner Darkly. (Mars seems to be more cartoonish, Scanner more gritty.)

This form of animation is different from both regular animation and from live-action film. I found it appealing, even though I didn’t enjoy the movie itself overly much.

Summing up: Viewers need only gaze at Mars if they’re willing to voyage on the, ah, eclectic side.

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