Watching a movie like Approaching the Unknown gives a lot of credit to movies like The Martian.
Approaching the Unknown is essentially the inverse of The Martian. While The Martian is all about a character trying to survive and get to Earth from Mars, Approaching the Unknown is all about a character trying to survive and get to Mars from Earth. Mark Strong plays William D. Stanaforth, an American astronaut who is desperate to be the first person to walk on Mars. He invents a machine that can turn water into dirt, and is convinced that his invention could make life sustainable on Mars. However, when his machine stops working, Stanaforth is unable to accept his failure and continues on his journey, despite the wishes of his crew (Luke Wilson – primarily via video chat).
Another way that this film is diametrically opposed to The Martian is that The Martian is actually fun to watch. Aside from the fact that it was listed as a ‘comedy’ by the Golden Globes, The Martian has a hopeful tone and a lot of charm throughout. Approaching the Unknown’s tone could best be described as bleak. Within the movie, all of the astronauts seem to lose their purpose and will to live. The situations they are in are tedious, and everything seems to be super depressing. It’s only 90 minutes long, but it’s 90 minutes of sadness.
Mark Strong has generally given some incredibly strong (ugh) supporting performances, but his charisma as a leading man has yet to be seen. Unfortunately, Approaching the Unknown doesn’t really give him a lot of opportunity to do so. Within the film, Strong fixes cables, maintains plants and gives a monotone voiceover. That’s about it. He owns his role, but his role is less of a character and more of a machine. His one goal is to fly to Mars and he has no interest of going back to Earth. An experienced filmmaker could probably make a character like this entertaining, but first-time writer/director Mark Elijah Rosenberg makes the character bland by nearly exclusively telling instead of showing.
That’s probably the best descriptor of Approaching the Unknown. Bland. It’s not terribly hard to watch, but it’s certainly not easy. All of the struggle and tension that wants to exist within the movie seems far too subdued. The cinematography is gorgeous (especially the space photography), but the ‘days in space’ counter just sort of ticks by until the movie ends.
That said, if there’s any one thing that the film does right, it’s creating a morbid atmosphere. When the film ended, it left me questioning what the point of the movie even was. Then it left me questioning what the point of any film even was. The movie is its own little existential crisis, and that left me feeling a lot more positive about the film the more I thought about it. That said, the film seems to be struggling with existential questions that it is not qualified to answer. It is far too tedious throughout, and far too underwhelming when it ends. Let’s just say that Mark Watney did it a lot better.