I'm a space nut. Have been since even before Star Wars converted me to the ways of the Force and the joys of high-tech serial adventure derring-do. I watched in rapt attention as Skylab rained down over Australia almost three decades ago, held my breath as the space shuttle Columbia made its maiden voyage and still own my extremely tattered copy of National Geographic which outlines the life-seeking experiments of the twin Viking landers on Mars.
Flash forward to the new millennium. NASA once again put a pair of clever robots onto the surface of the Red Planet. Instead of stationary landers, these two took a page from the tiny, intriguing Sojourner rover which landed in 1997 and wowed audiences worldwide. Instead of sitting in one place, the twin rovers -- dubbed Spirit and Opportunity -- set out across the dusty surface of Mars, learning all they could about that far-away world as they sought out evidence of ancient water, and by extension, the possibility of life.
Fortunately for audiences worldwide, someone had the foresight to turn on a camera.
Sadly, Roving Mars is only two thirds of a great documentary. White the lead-up to the actual launch is spot-on, and the launch and landing sequences are very well-done with deft integration of computer animation and actual NASA footage, the time Spirit and Opportunity actually spend on Mars is given short shrift.
Gorgeous vistas of Mars fill my screen saver photo file, and thousands of magnificent photos have been released to the public over the years. Only a handful of those make it into the film, however, with director George Butler choosing to rely on CGI to recreate various scenes from the rovers' explorations.
It's very good CGI for the most part, at times impossible to distinguish from the Earthbound beta rover which makes several appearances, but that is beside the point. Pixar makes some of the prettiest computer-generated pictures anywhere, but when I see a film titled Roving Mars I expect to see the real McCoy, not some convincing facsimile thereof.
Butler also seems to think space travel is boring, and adds all manner of thunderous roars, whooshes and assorted sound effects to in interplanetary voyage sequences when in fact sound does not travel in a vacuum.
Even the real-life drama of the mission is shortchanged by Butler's directing decisions. Example: Spirit very nearly died early in the mission due to dust coating the rover's solar panels, but miraculously, the panels were cleaned by the chance passing of a dust devil -- the first recorded instance of this phenomenon on another planet. This significant event is relegated to a brief segment just a few minutes long, with a brief clip of an active Martian dust devil shown in passing.
Now granted, the film wrapped production in 2005, and as of this writing the rovers are still alive -- though seriously threatened by a planet-wide dust storm. Be that as it may, the sheer wealth and complexity of Martian dust devil footage available makes me wonder what it takes to impress some people.
Aside from the actual time spent on Mars, Roving Mars is pitch perfect, particularly in the year leading up to launch. Because of the unprecedented success of the Mars Pathfinder mission and Sojourner rover in 1997, the MER program was conceived as a scaled-up version, the vehicles being much larger and carrying far more instruments. But the increased weight of the rovers and support materials were far too much for the airbag landing system and accompanying parachute, with catastrophic failures setting off all manner of alarm bells during testing.
With launch mere months away, the entire landing system was redesigned -- a seriously challenging difficulty that never reached mainstream media but was hotly debated and discussed online at the time. The honesty with which the filmmakers expose these problems, then document the determined resolve with which the engineers grapple with, and eventually resolve them, is commendable. For this reason if none other this film is an inspiring, worthy endeavor.
Rarely is a feature upstaged by its own extras on a DVD release, but Roving Mars comes close. And that's saying something, considering how engrossing the feature is despite its listed flaws. Whoever thought to include "Mars and Beyond," a 50-minute episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland television program originally broadcast in 1957, should be commended. Bits and pieces of the show have aired in various incarnations over the years, and the yellow, tubular bicycle-tire of a space station that makes an appearance late in the episode will likely be familiar to space buffs. But the uncut program is a rarity, and the eclectic nature of it is close to mind-boggling.
Interspersed among then-current scientific speculation regarding the solar system are all manner of satirical and downright funny spoofs of the SF tropes of the day, including bug-eyed monsters, damsels in distress and tawdry comic book covers. Eventually, the humor falls by the wayside and Mars gets a closer, more serious treatment, including a sequence where talented animators come up with a menagerie of inventive -- if not altogether probable -- Martian life forms. The animated sequence simulating the launch of a far-future Mars mission is also top-notch, with creative ship design that is sadly lacking in modern Hollywood blockbusters.
The other inclusion, "Mars: Past, Present, and Future," is a 25-minute making of featurette is engaging enough on its own, but undermined by heavy use of footage both from Roving Mars and "Mars and Beyond." This is particularly frustrating in light of the reams of public domain NASA footage available as well as scenes from the main feature that never made it out of the cutting room. Getting commentary from those involved in the production is welcome and enlightening to some degree, but as a making of documentary it leaves something to be desired, as there are no behind-the-scenes sequences.
A great deal is made of the sheer bulk and difficulties in using the IMAX cameras in such enclosed spaces at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but the viewer doesn't actually get to see this. For the purposes of a DVD extra, even hand-held video footage would be a welcome addition. Not everything has to be of IMAX quality.
At 40 minutes, Roving Mars clocks in on the slim side, but that's par for the course when dealing with films originally produced for the colossal screens of IMAX theaters. That's 40 quality minutes, and even if Mars itself doesn't get the screen times it deserves, what there is is breathtaking.
Coupled with bonus features that are almost worthy of their own disc, and Roving Mars is a winner all around. Just about the only way NASA can top this is to include streaming video from future missions -- a development that while inevitable, is still more than a few years away. Until then, enjoying the explorations of Spirit and Opportunity will have to suffice.
The Movie Itself: 8 out of 10
The DVD Features: 8 out of 10