In addition to its fluency in contemporary indie American cinema's styles of storytelling and dialog, Geoff Marslett's Mars is a throwback to the innumerable and often indistinguishable space-race B movies of the 50s and 60s that analogized journeys to distant planets and the iconography of Western settler narratives. The casting of Kinky Friedman as an actual cowboy president and repeated requests that the mission's mostly symbolic leader Charlie Brownsville (Mark Duplass), in his custom-embroidered NASA onesie, behave more like John Wayne, acknowledge the self-conscious Cold War rhetoric of this near-future space rom-com. Propelled by a fictionalized account of 2003's real launch and loss of a Mars rover, we jet forward to 2014, when the Europeans are sending a new robot, A.R.T., while NASA puts together a manned mission with the once heroic Charlie as media figurehead along with kiwi Casey Cook (Zoe Simpson) and pilot Hank Morrison (Paul Gordon).
Marslett's many influences, from vintage sci-fi films and Douglas Adams novels to 80s comics, mumblecore and recent mashup comedies, come together in a unique animation style, part-graphic novel, part-indie video game. Shot entirely on a green-screened soundstage with actors in costumes and minimal sets and props digitized and tweaked, the starry, sci-fi settings are filled out with half hand-drawn, half computer-animated environments full of retro-rounded forms and bold primaries. Comic book panel-like text announces changes in time and place—11 years later... Kennedy Space Center." Against this bright-hued assemblage of disparate narrative sources and aesthetic palettes, whose imaginative flights are grounded by passages of quasi-Apollo 13-ian emotional realism, an almost bizarrely straight-forward romance emerges very organically.
During an argument between the three crew-members over orders handed down (er, up?) from Houston, Casey invites Charlie for a swim in their ship's water reservoir, an idyllic lake surrounded by tropical vegetation. The naturalistic, fairly inexpressive style of acting works well with Marslett's style of animation, placing greater emphasis on voice and tone. An unfortunate side-effect of the digitizing process is the flattening of actors' faces, creating double chins where there are none, and making two good-looking actors like Duplass and Simpson look not so great. Other sequences, mostly those in large outdoor areas like the surface of Mars, seem unfortunately lacking in detail, evoking the undifferentiated patterns of early 3D video game environments. This can cause a stuttering progression in "camera" movements that seem intended as fluid. As a result scenes nearer the climactic and imperiled landing, as the race between robots and cosmonauts comes to a photo finish, appear less frantic than they could have. The ambitiously stylized sci-fi epic, invested with the hopes and moneys of billions, plays well against the Earth-scaled relationships between the three astronauts. Like Moon before it, Mars signals an opening up of the space movie frontier to more intimate types of journeys. Next stop Jupiter?
Opens December 3 at the reRun Gastropub Theater