Approaching the Unknown (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Performers like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and Tom Hardy in “Locke” make one-man exercises appear easy to pull off, but the reality is contrary to the common belief that one merely has to place the camera in front of the actor and magic automatically happens. While talent is very necessary to the success of the picture, the writing and the direction must equally be on point in order to create a believable, highly watchable situation.
“Approaching the Unknown” is an example of having a strong actor in front of the camera but the writing and direction leave a lot to be desired. While these two ingredients are competent at times, that is exactly the problem: these elements are not strong from beginning right to the very end and so our attention vacillates from curiosity to boredom. For a story involving a one-man, one-way trip to Mars in order for humanity to start a colony there, it is most disappointing the the film fails to compel. Little energy is felt during this history-defining mission.
Mark Strong plays Captain William Stanaforth, a man with a sharp mind and ability to solve problems creatively. It is interesting how Strong chooses to play the character in a non-charismatic way, almost the complete opposite of how Matt Damon chose to play Mark Watney in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Here, victories do not result to big celebrations or exclamations. There is only silent satisfaction or a sigh of relief. Failures, on the other hand, are often grim, near hopeless. What results is not a celebratory film but one that makes the viewer wonder about the many elements that can go wrong in a once in lifetime but terrifying journey that Stanaforth partakes in.
The writing lacks a convincing arc that reflects Stanaforth’s slow descent into possible madness. Sure, the crippling power of loneliness is nicely captured during one of the best scenes where our protagonists makes a stop in a space station and the people there (Charles Baker, Anders Danielsen Lie) look drained, hollow, not one hundred percent present. However, Stanaforth’s psychological debilitation lacks timing, rhythm, and identity that is specific to this character undergoing challenges that are specific to the mission. Imagine another man on Earth who is locked inside a room for months. Both men’s symptoms are highly likely to be similar.
It were as if writer-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg had read a psychology textbook for undergraduate students, written down symptoms of people who had undergone some kind of trauma due to extended isolation, and put such manifestations in the film. Sure, it is clinical but it also creates a predictable experience. The film offers not one surprising move in terms of Stanaforth’s survival. This is a grave mistake considering that, in its essence, the story is about a man who must rely on his intellect and personal experiences in order to survive and accomplish the mission no matter the cost.
Rosenberg fails to inject excitement into the film. I don’t mean “excitement” as in big explosions or last-second saves. What I mean is a thoroughly convincing insight into a man’s predicament that we feel excited to be engaged in whatever is happening—and what is yet to transpire in his adventure. Movies set in space must command a sense of wonder. This movie is like a fish flopping about, gasping for air during most of a lean, ninety-minute running time.