Like many Imax adventures, Disney’s “Roving Mars” enlivens the chronicle of an intrepid expedition with spectacular footage of its discoveries. But don’t expect to see actual images teleported from space, because virtually all the sparse extraterrestrial footage is computer-enhanced or outright computer-generated. Accuracy alone separates NASA-sanctioned CGI from the Hollywood kind. The saga on Earth, however, where years of work by thousands of people comes down to the wire, resonates with genuine unpredictability. Helmer George Butler correctly gauges his film’s strengths, with the search for life in the universe becoming a heartfelt tribute to a couple of robots.
Pic opens with large, screen-filling shots of the looming Red Planet over Paul Newman-read, Philip Glass-scored musings on the eternal questions to which Mars may hold the answers. The obligatory introduction of the team, headed by astronomer Steve Squyres, follows. Squyres, who wrote the book “Roving Mars,” provides much of pic’s point of view via on-camera appearances and voiceover commentary.
But the real stars of “Roving Mars” are the two robot rovers, dubbed Spirit and Opportunity. They were designed to take off from Earth, travel 300 million miles in seven months, land at precise points on the surface of the Red Planet (a feat the analogy-prone narration likens to shooting a basketball from Los Angeles to New York and hitting nothing but the bottom of the net), then deploy themselves to collect photographic data and send it back to Earth.
Writer-director Butler (“Pumping Iron,” “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure”) is particularly adept at depicting the sheer weight of the manpower and ingeniousness of the people who test, tweak, tinker, observe and discuss every complicated nut, bolt and panel.
Without belaboring the obvious, docu stresses the uncertainty of the venture. Of the dozens of missions to Mars, two-thirds have failed. Two of the previous three launches ended in disaster.
The complexity of the tasks the robots must perform, both as fully launched spacecraft and as Mars-bound rovers, increases the probability of one bell or whistle suddenly malfunctioning and monkey-wrenching the mission.
The dreaded Disney propensity for anthropomorphism makes a brief appearance as the two robots are assigned first-born and second-born personalities, but Butler keeps the whimsy in check. Similarly, the grandiose flights of fancy one might expect from producer Frank Marshall’s longtime collaboration with Steven Spielberg are limited to a particularly lovely imagined landscape of a millennia-ago planet dotted with acid red lakes.
Pic deploys its most theatrical, 3-Dish CGI renderings during the flight to Mars, as sections of the spacecraft suddenly separate, explosively fly apart or miraculously unfold, ending up with the rover, surrounded by white airbags like giant bubble wrap bouncing across the Martian landscape.
The mission’s dramatic discovery, confirming the historical existence of water on the planet, occupies very little of the pic’s imagery. Rather a sense of wonder over the success of the rovers overwhelms the data they record.