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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 06.02.16] scifi thriller drama

Will Stanaford is many things: a scientist, an inventor, an explorer, a dreamer. He's also a little bit crazy and writer/director Mark Elijah Rosenberg makes it pretty clear that in order to push the boundaries of humanity, to really be a pioneer, one has to be a little unhinged. At least that's what I took from his feature film debut Approaching the Unknown.

Will Stanaford is an astronaut on a mission to Mars. He carries with him the future for possible colonization of the Red Planet: a machine of his own creation which extracts water from dirt. His determination got him on the mission and it's that determination that is going to get him to Mars. This is a one way trip and he's decided that he won't return to Earth under any circumstances. It's not that he dislikes humanity... he's just ready to take the next step for us all. At any cost.

Long haul trips, be they across the country or 225 million kilometres, rarely go off without a hitch and this mission isn't spared trouble. While running a routine test on his water extraction machine, Stanaford comes across a problem and while trying to fix it, creates an even bigger problem he can't hack his way out of. He's not a man used to defeat and for most of the movie's second half, Approaching the Unknown turns into a tale of survival and an intimate observation of one man's descent into desperation and eventually, a sort of madness.

The story unfolds largely in one contained location and Rosenberg and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra make excellent use of the set which appears large and roomy at the opening of the film and becomes smaller and more oppressive the further Stanaford gets into his mission. The special effects are sparingly used and limited almost exclusively to a few moments when we observe space as the ship traverses through it; a scene which is perfectly placed for maximum emotional effect. Then there's the fact that this is basically a one man show.

A few other characters meander through the story but for all intents and purposes this is the Mark Strong show and he steps up to the challenge, carrying the bulk of the movie alone with a great performance full of emotional depth. My single complaint is that Rosenberg relies too heavily on voiceover and though some of it is necessary, I wish he would have given Strong more reign to work in contemplative silence because those moments of quiet are some of the most powerful of the movie.

Approaching the Unknown is an unassuming movie which has more in common with Sunshine than with any of the big space blockbusters of the last few years. With its microcosmic focus on one man's struggle coming to terms with his mortality and his search for meaning, Rosenberg provides interesting commentary on humanity's pioneering spirit – or perhaps the lack of it. It's an impressive debut feature.

Approaching the Unknown opens theatrically and is available on VOD and streaming on June 3.

Recommended Release: Sunshine

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whammo69 (6 years ago) Reply

someone with a broader viewing base and experience as a reviewer might have more accurately likened this film to "love: angels and airwaves", or even MOON, but whatever.


Marina (6 years ago) Reply

True enough but I didn't care for LOVE and the themes of MOON are very different - not so much the pioneering spirit but more of going crazy from cabin fever. For me, that's not the central theme here


Paul Sloan (6 years ago) Reply

Great review. I must have watched Sunshine at least 6 times. Space and Mark Strong, I'll check this out.


Alan (6 years ago) Reply

The more obvious comparison would be "The Martian". Wanted to see if this was some cheap knock off of that, but from your review, apparently not.
Also the word is "rein" as in horse, not "reign" as in king.


Wumpus (6 years ago) Reply

The idea that going crazy is "part of the process" is interesting, Marina. I'll keep that in mind when I see this one.


Marc (6 years ago) Reply

Saw this over the weekend. If you like very slow-paced and almost non-existent plot, this is for you. The Martian it is not.

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