If you're anything like me (and I apologize if you are), you're a bit of a space nut. You watch shuttle launches on TV, you have Space.com bookmarked, and you devoured any news surrounding the missions of Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
The latter has been chronicled, if disappointingly too briefly, in "Roving Mars," a documentary short produced by Disney, sponsored by Lockheed Martin, and shown around the nation on IMAX (and Omnimax) screens. The film, clocking in at a 45 minutes, is standard IMAX docu fare: a few talking heads, some lush narration, and a whole heap of impressive visuals. And this is where the film cheats. It promises peeks at the photos of the Martian surface taken by the rovers, and it indeed delivers, but it spends more of its time with CGI-created mock-ups of Mars.
The excuse is that there were no cameras available to capture the rovers' landings on the red planet, and so high-tech animation was used to simulate such sights. And to be fair, such images are indeed quite gorgeous. But Disney's pledge to show us Mars as it has "never been seen before" suggests a closer study of the actual images that have been sent back to Earth by those famous robots, and that study never arrives. There's no explanation of the few images we do get, and no in-depth view of the grand mysteries that await us all those miles away.
But to complain about what we do not get is to undermine what we do get, and "Roving Mars" offers a terrific chance for us space nuts to go inside NASA and learn more about the teams that built the rovers. A majority of the film is strictly earthbound, so to speak, as we are shown behind-the-scenes footage of scientists puzzling over every last detail. We're told how such a mission had a limited timeframe (Mars won't be this close again for a while), and the design teams were racing against the clock. We're shown video of failed test runs, like the special parachute that tore to shreds upon opening, thus reminding us of all the many different ways this mission could have failed. (Failure is a common thread in Mars exploration - the planet is described as a "spacecraft graveyard.")
It doesn't matter that we already know the rovers not only succeeded, but succeeded well beyond NASA's expectations. Getting such first-hand information - all the little hows and whys that add up to a single effort - makes the story fresh again. "Roving Mars" isn't so much about Mars itself; it's about us, and what we had to go through to get there. All that Mars imagery, both real and fake, is secondary. The real importance is in the triumph of the human desire for exploration.
As with many IMAX documentaries, this one comes with a bit of a pedigree to help sell the idea of all that science talk. Philip Glass provides the rousing score (a far more mainstream work than we expect from the experimental composer); Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós offers the closing credits music; Frank Marshall serves as producer; Paul Newman provides introductory narration; and director/co-writer George Butler is known for such popular documentaries as "Pumping Iron" and "The Endurance: Shakleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition."
Video & Audio
Disney offers "Roving Mars" in your choice of full screen (1.33:1) or anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1). It's a peculiar blend, as some footage was filmed in one format, some the other. As the full screen version crops all widescreen footage while the widescreen version simply pillarboxes the 1.33:1 footage, I suggest sticking to the widescreen.
Being filmed for IMAX theaters, the image (no matter how you watch it) is stunning, and suffers no problems in the transfer. Archival footage may be forgivably grainy, but the rest is superbly sharp.
For the soundtrack, you can choose from the original English or dubs in Spanish and French; all receive the Dolby 5.1 treatment. The mix was obviously made with IMAX theaters' booming speakers in mind, as the audio will often go from soft and soothing (in interview scenes) to rumblingly loud on absurd levels (in rover-landing reenactments). As I watched the film, I kept having to apologize to my wife, who, in the next room, kept wondering why the movie was suddenly blaring at top volume. The sudden ups and downs decibel-wise become annoying, although with the proper set-up, it's also kinda fun. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
To supplement the short running time of the feature presentation, Disney offers two fine bonus features. The first is "Mars: Past, Present & Future" (24:44), which studies in some detail the three levels of the title. "Past" is a quickie rundown of humanity's obsession with our neighboring planet; "Present" combines the making of "Roving Mars" itself (in which we learn George Butler always speaks just above a calm whisper) with further information on the current Mars missions (adding this footage into the film itself might have helped flesh it out more); and "Future" discusses the possibility of a manned flight to Mars, as well as the work of the "Imagine Mars" project, which works to bring that possibility closer to reality. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
"Mars and Beyond" (52:44) is a classic episode of "Disneyland," originally airing in December 1957. The workings of the solar system, especially the red planet, is treated to the Disney touch, with documentary fact work mixing with lively animation. It's embarrassingly outdated in many spots, but it's still plenty fun, especially as nostalgia. (This episode was also included in the "Tomorrowland" edition of the "Walt Disney Treasures" series.) Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast format.
The usual batch of Disney previews rounds out the set.
While the movie itself is slightly disappointing, the two quality extras help make this a fuller package. Recommended to space nuts who can't get enough Mars action.