Review: Approaching the Unknown
PLOT: An astronaut (Mark Strong) on a solo mission to Mars, struggles with technical disasters and loneliness when he’s cut-off from mission control.
REVIEW: APPROACHING THE UNKNOWN has both the advantage and disadvantage of coming out after THE MARTIAN. Thematically similar but night and day in terms of budget and scale, director Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s modest debut will likely attract curious fans of Ridley Scott’s film, but they’ll have to be happy with a movie that has far more in common with cerebral seventies sci-fi like SILENT RUNNING than it does with the Matt Damon epic.
APPROACHING THE UNKNOWN certainly benefits from star Mark Strong’s performance in the lead. A commanding presence who’s rarely given full reign, he’s convincing as a legendary astronaut going on what he suspects will be a one-way trip based on both a sense of duty and his own loneliness and disenchantment with life on earth. This aspect could have been explored more, with Strong telling an interesting story during a short resupply (with some squirrely astronauts) where he mentions how alienated he felt when his former wife won a prestigious award. It hints at an ego that could have made him more three-dimensional but isn't really explored once it becomes more about technical mishaps.
Science buffs will likely be intrigued at attempts to be accurate, but in-terms of drama APPROACHING THE UNKNOWN comes up short. Despite running under ninety minutes, the movie is often dull, while the dour, overtly arty tone makes Scott’s lighthearted take on THE MARTIAN seem doubly refreshing by comparison. It also - understandably - lacks the excitement or tension of something like GRAVITY, with pretty much all of the action, minus a few scenes, set aboard Strong’s capsule. And for all of his talents, Strong’s personality just doesn’t come through in a way that would captivate an audience in the way it needs to for a one-man show. One almost needs to be in overdrive for a part like this, and Strong, with his more well-rounded, realistic approach isn’t as fun to watch as a bona-fide movie star.. Co-stars Luke Wilson (prominently billed above the titles) and Sanaa Lathan are only really present through video calls, making it almost seem like their performances were simply Skyped-in.
Despite all that, one has to at least admire Rosenberg for giving the film (with DP Adam Newport-Berra) an interesting look. And while the budget is clearly minuscule, the FX work (much of which is apparently practical) is more than decent and a big step-up from most VOD outings. While not the under-the-radar sci-fi gem I was hoping for when I first saw the trailer, APPROACHING THE UNKNOWN, while lackluster in terms of drama, at least showcases Rosenberg’s flair for the technical aspects of movie-making. In a way it’s like an audition reel for a much bigger assignment and while it’s not especially satisfying on its own, I doubt we’ve heard the last of its newbie director.