Director: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Writer: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Starring: Mark Strong, Luke Wilson, Sanaa Lathan, Anders Danielsen Lie, Charles Baker
A brief read of its synopsis and you might think that Approaching the Unknown is a blatant copy of Ridley Scott's sci-fi hit, The Martian from 2015. What you are presented with, however, is a vastly different film which explores similar themes with a far different approach. It is nowhere near the film-making calibre of The Martian, not always working as well as it should, but as directorial debuts go this is one of the most thought-provoking and startlingly ambitious that you are likely to find.
Approaching the Unknown follows the 270-day commute from Earth to Mars, undertaken by one astronaut Captain William Stanaforth (Mark Strong) with the aim of beginning the transformation of Mars into a fertile and hospitable planet. Immediately you are required to suspend some of your belief, as it is not made clear as to why he must undergo this journey alone, nor does it explain why his future cohabiter must commence the exact same journey just three weeks later. These gaps in the story are particularly frustrating due to the obvious effort which has been put into constructing the rest of the story, but if you are able to accept holes in the narrative then you will likely find yourself enjoying what is an interesting look at the logistical issues of what may be mankind's next great astronomical feat.
Whereas the red planet itself was a huge point of focus in The Martian, the final destination is of little relevance in Approaching the Unknown. Rather, it is the difficulties of the immense 40 million mile journey which are extensively explored in this stark space drama, with the vast amount of footage taking place within the clinical metallic walls of Stanaforth's ship, the Zephyr. Specifically, Approaching the Unknown's main topic of interest is the sheer isolation experienced by our singular astronaut as he leaves the Earth behind. This film manages to capture a real sense of loneliness as Stanaforth travels further and further away from our little blue planet. The cast is minimal cast and the involvement of anyone other than Mark Strong's astronaut is extremely limited, while a large proportion of Strong's lines take the form of a voiceover, epitomising his own internal monologue to which he is predominantly limited. As the film progresses, the toll of such aloneness becomes more clear, as Stanaforth's mental state begins to deteriorate and his initial hopefulness begins to wane. Such massive isolation from others is perhaps one of our greatest fears, and Approaching the Unknown is a detailed exploration of the psychological effects of such extreme loneliness on even the sturdiest of minds.
Its script is certainly enthusiastic, desperately wanting to be rich and profound, but it seems to continually switch between feeling too empty and superficial to sometimes coming across as overly melodramatic. It does little to help the pace of the film either, which stays at a fixed velocity from start to finish - perhaps poetically mimicking the trajectory of the very ship within which the film is predominantly set. Much like Stanaforth's life aboard the Zepher, Approaching the Unknown can feel shapeless, having little momentum other than that which was initially given at the film's beginning. This lack of drive is happily compensated by a remarkably realistic (if not always scientifically accurate) piece of film. An astonishing amount of detail has gone into the Zephyr's design and to the various aspects of the ship which are designed to combat its inhabitant's severe detachment from Earth, resulting in a space travel film which feels tantalisingly plausible.
Occasional shots of the Zephyr's outside are scattered intermittently throughout the film, where Stanaforth's floating vessel is seen drifting through the emptiness of space, sometimes encountering vibrant gas clouds or glowing solar flares. Many of these scenes look like they have come straight out of sci-fi films from the 70s. It appears to be a creative homage to the age of sci-fi where practical special effects were state of the art, and the result is images which embody the iconic look of 70s sci-fi. Even Stanaforth's final Martian spacesuit has the boxy minimalistic look of early space films. As an artistic decision, however, it can be argued that this retro look isn't in keeping with the strictly modernised and future focussed tone of the film.
As first attempts at directing feature-length films go, Approaching the Unknown is out of this world, being astonishingly ambitious and polished for a debut. It's not without issues, often not quite hitting the sweet spot between melodrama and emptiness and lacking a fundamental momentum which would allow the film to take a definable shape. That said, Strong's determined performance combined with the exceptional devotion to detail is certainly enough to keep you engrossed for the entire journey.
In one line: Approaching the Unknown is a detailed but sluggish space drama that will require a devoted interest in space exploration to keep you hooked, but will surely satisfy that interest.