Most people now think of IMAX as the way to see some of the coolest new movies with the best possible picture and sound. What people tend to forget is that it was originally conceived for thirty to forty minute nature and science documentaries, often for museums like The Smithsonian. One of their most recent original documentary efforts is Roving Mars, a film about the 2004 Mars mission to discover if the planet ever had water.
Roving Mars seems to get off on the wrong foot almost from the beginning. The introduction feels rushed, and the film never takes the time to explain why this mission is considered to be so important. I know the film is only forty minutes long, so they can't waste any time, but with a mission of this magnitude, the scope of the film just feels wrong. At one point, the narrator mentions that the team only has one month left until they launch, and the parachute they developed for landing the rover doesn't work at all, but there's no urgency to the narration, no sense of what that means. What should be a moment of extreme tension comes off as just another commonplace fact.
It also doesn't help that there's almost no footage of Mars. Most of the sequences that take place off of Earth are computer generated, and not very well. How are you meant to have your breath taken away by the alien landscapes of another planet when they were just made badly on a computer in someone's studio? There's also too little footage of the results of the mission. You never get to connect to the team or share in their accomplishments.
Instead of having the audience identify with the men who made the Mars mission possible, the film tries to anthropomorphize the machines themselves. However, this tactic only works on a rudimentary level and won't connect with anyone over the age of 10. It's not awful, but it doesn't feel well integrated or well executed.
Roving Mars isn't terrible, but it's nowhere near as good as some of IMAX's more spectacular documentaries. Those interested in Mars will want to give it a view, but only as a supplement to a better source of knowledge.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Disney presents Roving Mars in an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1, perfect for high definition screens. The thing is, IMAX films are in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and IMDB lists this film as having been originally presented in that ratio. So what you're getting is a cropped version of the film. And if that weren't bad enough, it doesn't look very good. This particular documentary was only partially shot with IMAX's cameras, which explains why some of it looks better than others, but even the best scenes are very soft and lack detail. The colors come out nicely, and obviously the CGI sequences look pristine. Still, this is not representative of the capabilities of either IMAX or the Blu-ray format.
Disney offers a PCM 5.1 lossless audio track for Roving Mars. Some of the sequences on this are demo worthy, with the launch of the space shuttle being the obvious choice. At other times, though, there's not much else but the narrator in the center channel. So it's not the most active track, but those few times it revs up, watch out! Also available is an inferior Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
Disney ports over all the special features from the DVD edition.
- Mars - Past, Present, and Future A complement to the main feature, this behind the scenes documentary does what the main feature fails to do: Humanize the project. We get interviews with the team engineers, the documentary filmmakers, and more. This probably should have been the film released in IMAX theaters, because even at less than half an hour it's got more feeling to it than all of Roving Mars. Even better, it's in 1080p high definition on the disc.
- Mars and Beyond: A vintage Disney feature about Mars. This is almost an hour long and gets tiresome by the end. Presented in standard definition.
Roving Mars is an example of how even a fascinating subject can becoming boring if handled poorly. It's not terrible, but it just fails to connect with the audience. The image is not very noteworthy, although the audio is better, and some of the extras are definitely worth seeing. Good for one or two viewings at most. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.