Saturday, April 22, 2017

Race to Mars (Galafilm Productions, Arte France, Discovery Channel Canada, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie at last night’s Mars film screening was a three-hour Canadian TV movie called Race to Mars, made in 2006 and split into four 42-minute episodes — though the page on the film makes it appear it was shown in just two parts. It deals with a cooperative mission to Mars in the years 2029-2031 (it takes a year to get there and a year to get back, and the astronauts only have about 11 days to spend on the planet’s surface) undertaken by a consortium of nations including the U.S. (which contributes two members of the crew, flight commander Rick Erwin [Michael Riley] and engineer Lucia Alarcón [Claudia Ferri], while the other nations involved get only one each), Canada, France (representing the European Union — given the way French politics are going and the likely outcomes from their presidential election tomorrow, the prediction that France will still be in the E.U. in 2029 is almost as optimistic as the one that we’ll actually be going to Mars!), Russia and Japan. The other crew members are the ship’s doctor, Antoine Hébert (Lothaire Bluteau) — that’s a man, by the way, despite the gender ambiguity of both the character’s and the actor’s first names — along with Jackie Decelles (Pascale Bussières), the only other woman besides Lucia; Mikhail Cerenkov (Frank Schorpion) and Hiromi Okuda (Kevan Ohtsji). The gender box score is four men and two women, and while we’re told the characters have families they’ve left behind back on Earth, the only relatives we see are Rick’s: his wife Lynn (Macha Grenon), their son Adam (Robert Naylor) and Rick’s father (David Rigby), with whom they communicate via videophone — and writers Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens build in the characters’ frustrations over the minutes-long gaps between the signals from Earth and Rick Erwin’s responses from space.

The Reeves-Stevenses and director George Mihalka build the Mars trip into a surprisingly understated suspense drama in which the characters — including Glenn Hartwell (Francis X. McCarthy), who’s running Mission Control back home in Houston (still! Lyndon Johnson’s gift to his home state that just keeps on giving!) and giving them instructions and advice that just seemed nit-picky to me — speak in formal, military jargon (including saying “Copy that?” and replying “Copy that” an awful lot to indicate they’ve understood the message they were given) that rings true because it’s basically the way real astronauts have spoken to each other and to the Mission Controllers back home on actual space flights. The Reeves-Stevenses are able to have a lot of things happen in that highly confined space in which the characters spend two years of their lives without underlining it with the melodrama typical of science-fiction flights about space travel (even such good ones as the pioneering Fritz Lang silent from 1928, Woman on the Moon, as well as Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M, clips from which are actually included here as an in-flight movie the crew members are watching and laughing at the scientific errors). First they find that a number of the circuit boards on which the various systems of their spacecraft, the Terra Nova, depend are faulty and keep going out on them — it turns out that, fearful that the Chinese (who didn’t join the consortium) would beat them to Mars and be the first ones to discover water and then life on the Red Planet (which they do and they don’t: they land a probe that drills for and discovers water, but it’s unmanned and thus Our Heroes get to be the first people to set foot on Mars), the company building the spaceship cut corners and used the boards without testing them first. (At this point I thought of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons — in which an aircraft manufacturer used defective parts to build military planes during World War II, with the result that several pilots lost their lives unnecessarily — and figured the Reeves-Stevenses were ripping off that plot point and putting it in a science-fiction context.) Because so many of the boards are out of whack, commander Erwin has to order his crew to bypass as many of the automatic control systems as possible and run the ship manually. Then, just as the crew members are watching the meteor-shower sequence of Rocketship X-M and laughing at how much bigger the meteors are than real ones, the ship starts getting hit by a repetitive banging — at first I wondered if the Chinese ship was playing battering-cars with them in outer space, but it turns out to be neither that nor a meteor but one of the ship’s two grappling arms working itself loose, repeatedly hammering away at the ship, and forcing the crew to jettison it. (I joked, “The flying corkscrew has just jettisoned the flying nutcracker.” As in the more recent film Passengers, the spaceship looks like a flying corkscrew because it’s designed to spin on its own axis to generate artificial gravity, so the crew members can do their work without having to worry about how to control themselves and any objects they manipulate — and the producers can save a lot of money by not having to do all the wire work needed to simulate weightlessness.) All this has dented the exterior of the ship, but since the hull hasn’t actually been breached the crew members aren’t worried.

Then, once the crew have finally got to Mars, they get a message from Mission Control that due to all the problems they got into on the way, the Mission Controllers have determined that instead of actually landing on Mars, they should turn around and go back to Earth — only the crew members are predictably upset at having to turn back just when they’re so close and the other three (unmanned) rockets that were supposed to send up their support craft, including the Gagarin in which they’re supposed to land (named after the Russian cosmonaut who became the first human in space in 1961) and the “MarsHab” Atlantis in which they’re supposed to live, as well as the two vehicles in which they are able to travel around Mars’s surface — they quietly but firmly decide to land. Once on Mars they’re confronted with a new problem: one of the landing legs the Atlantis is supposed to rest on didn’t descend fully, and they’re not allowed to enter it until the leg is touching the Martian surface. (I read this as yet another surprisingly quirky literary reference made by the Reeves-Stevenses: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, so much of whose plot turns on the inflexible rules of the British Navy and how even its captains were forced to abide by them, no matter what.) They finally get the leg down, but in the process Japanese astronaut Hiromi Okuda breaks his arm and Dr. Decelles orders him to remain in quarantine until his arm heals — and he’s naturally upset that he can’t be out on the Martian surface with the others. The crew sets up a drill to look for water on Mars — the Chinese unmanned probe found some, but it was so salty the human crew of the Terra Nova assume it was the remnant of an otherwise long-since evaporated Martian sea — only their drill bits keep breaking and the consortium back on Earth contacts the Chinese to see if their astronauts can cannibalize parts from the Chinese probe. They ultimately find water, which turns to snow in the frigid Martian temperature, but eventually the water well gushers and Okuda is buried in Martian slush and killed.

On the way back (we’re up to episode three of the four by now) the crew members start getting sick, and at first they assume it’s a common infection they brought with them from Earth. Later they conclude it’s actually something from Mars (so in addition to all the other stories the Reeves-Stevenses are “referencing,” as wold say, we can add The Andromeda Strain!). Dr. Decelles wants permission to open the samples of the Martian soil and water the expedition collected, but yet another standing order forbids them from doing that on the spaceship — not that that matters, anyway, because just when the crew is trying to decide whether to go ahead and open a sample even though it risks getting them all quarantined indefinitely if and when they make it back to Earth, the ship is hit by a solar flare. At first I was thinking that the energy from the solar flare would kill whatever the Martian organism was that was making them sick — but it turns out there isn’t a Martian organism that’s making them sick. Instead the rapid alternations between hot and cold on the voyage opened that dent in the side of the ship caused by the flailing arm and part of that solar flare fried some critical equipment, with the result that the ship’s systems are stuck on a particular time coordinate and the instruments that monitor the air quality are going haywire. The crew realize this when they find the mice, who were taken along for the same reason canaries are used in coal mines — to see when the atmosphere had become too dangerous to breathe — are dead (they must have been props since the film contains a “No animals were harmed” designation), and they ultimately realize that they have to go outside the vehicle and swap out some more damaged boards so the ship’s environmental controls start giving it breathable air instead of the heavy concentration of carbon monoxide that was actually making them sick. This means having to take down two of the cabin doors because the ship’s nuclear propulsion system (a concept that was actually researched in the 1970’s as a possible propellant for future spacecraft) has made the area dangerously radioactive, and the two crew members chosen for the mission, Erwin and Cerenkov, have a strict hour-and-a-half time limit on how long they can be out there before receiving a dangerously high dose of radiation. Fortunately everything works out in the end and the five surviving astronauts return home.  

Race to Mars is stuck with a deceptive title (since the Chinese probe they are supposedly “racing” to beat to Mars is unmanned, it’s not a real “space race” like the infamous one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, in which the Soviets kept beating us until they just gave up, so they won the race to be first in space, we won to be first on the moon, and then we gave up — supposedly when he was President in the early 1970’s Richard Nixon canceled all of NASA’s manned programs past Apollo and also canceled the research into the nuclear thermal propulsion system used in this film, and that’s why after Apollo 17 humans never went to the moon again instead of going on to Mars) and some hilarious uses of stock footage (notably in an unintentionally risible scene in which the various capital cities of the consortium countries are shown supposedly celebrating the astronauts’ safe landing on the Martian surface, and what we’re really seeing are stock shots of New Year’s celebrations in those cities), but for the most part it’s a quite well made film, nicely acted and staged with a quiet dignity that avoids the melodramatic complications of much science fiction and instead goes for a depiction of space travel the way we’ve actually seen it done in the footage from the Apollo missions and the shuttles. Race to Mars is one of the better recent space-travel movies and I was glad to have seen it — and particularly glad to have been able to see it in one “go” without the false suspense created by watching it as four discrete episodes of a TV mini-series.