Mars in 3D: Images From the Viking Mission
AIX Records // Unrated // $19.99 // June 26, 2012
Review by Tyler Foster | posted July 20, 2012
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Back in the 1970s, NASA launched the Viking 1 and the Viking 2, to gather photographic documentation of Mars. Each spacecraft consisted of an orbiter, which took photographs of the surface from space, and a lander, which touched down on the planet's surface, where they took ground-level photographs and collected dirt samples. The images these craft captured were stereoscopic, and were combined to create a dual 16mm 3D image. The resulting half-hour documentary was initially designed for scientific study, but thanks to the efforts of the producers and composers who worked on the project from an artistic standpoint, the piece can now be viewed at home using modern 3D Blu-Ray technology.

It's important to know that Mars in 3D: Images From the Viking Mission is not a traditional documentary film. Having apparently missed the subtitle, I actually thought this would be converted 3D footage from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that were sent up in January 2004, cut into some sort of Discovery Channel-style special, but this decades-old feature was never designed to be "entertaining," per se. Mars in 3D was made for people at NASA as a document of their work, and it's very dry and extremely technical, with Stanford University professor Dr. Elliott Levinthal explaining the workings of the craft NASA launched and the information gleaned from its findings.

The 3D is also a wrinkle in the viewing experience. Although the film is 3D, and has been given a 21st century overhaul with modern technology, the original elements have technical limitations that are hard to get around. Footage of the surface was taken by two orbiting satellites, with the footage from each one representing an "eye," but to capture two eyes' worth of footage required the orbiter to do a full loop of the planet, which would take several hours. Thus, the shadow patterns in one eye vs. another eye are never the same, and so there are parts of the 3D image that are impossible to completely resolve. Rover footage is even weirder: the cameras were farther apart than normal 3D cameras, and so the convergence point at which the two images resolve into three dimensions is way off on the horizon. When looking at rover footage, it's very unlikely that one will be able to bring the bottom half of the screen "together." The horizons are interesting and look "correct," but that's only half of the image.

The real highlight of the presentation is the electronic music, composed by Michael McNabb and William Schottstaedt. Their computerized compositions, groundbreaking in 1979, is an interesting and evocative companion to footage of another planet. It reminded me of Vangelis' music for Blade Runner, with that sense of technology and artistry combining to create a unique and unusual sound. It's not surprising that McNabb, Schottstaedt, and others who worked on the restoration wanted to keep the film and the music together, because there's only so much score for a 30-minute film, and the film is an interesting historical document, but the music is the only part of the presentation with any spark or energy to it. I don't regret watching Mars in 3D, but the audience here redefines "niche."

The 3D Blu-Ray
Mars in 3D comes in a standard eco-LITE Vortex Blu-Ray case, with what I imagine is more modern imagery of Mars on the cover. The back cover goes into great detail about the film (likely hoping to limit the number of people who don't know what they're getting into), but still doesn't necessarily convey that this is a more corporate effort, designed for internal circulation at NASA vs. public consumption. Inside the case, there are three inserts: a six-page booklet with interviews of people involved with the restoration, a sheet that talks about the disc being enabled for THX Media Director, and another mentioning that the disc contains audio files that can be removed and listened to.

The Video and Audio
This restored 1080p MVC 1.33:1 3D transfer has noticeable film grain in standard segments with Levinthal, but is generally clear elsewhere. However, as mentioned in the body of the review, the "crosstalk" of the imagery used to create the 3D presentation makes this hard to judge. Frankly, the concentration required combined with the inability to truly resolve any of the stereoscopic images shown here really does make this a headache-inducing experience, but there should also be an essential understanding that the image is as good as it will ever look, and the quality is entirely based on the original materials and the means used to gather those materials rather than any failing of the disc itself.

Music is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and it sounds fantastic. Some might call the score sparse, so there's a limit to how much of a workout the music will give your sound system, but it's crisp and clear, haunting and beautiful in full HD. One blatant glitch, however, is that the audio from Levinthal's "host" segments (Which is on the murky side) is wildly desynchronized with his lips. Most of the film is actually Levinthal's voice over the other footage, so it's not a big deal, and I'm guessing that this also has something to do with the limitations of the equipment. No subtitles are included, which is a real shame.

The Extras
An intervieW with Prof. John Chowning, composer William Schottstaedt and Michael McNabb, and editor Uri Geva (40:55) finds the four men reflecting on their original intentions with the project and then their process in restoring it for this Blu-Ray. Nice at first, but becomes dull after about 20 minutes. The production values of the actual featurette also seem a big sloppy, because the HD footage looks garish and the title cards jump in and out of italics.

The other three extras are all essentially menu-based: an about the project text scroll, credits, and the option to listen to the music in HD, without the film.

Mars in 3D: Images From the Viking Mission is an unusual product. A film never intended for public consumption, shot in very primitive 3D, and restored on a whim years later, this curiosity might be an OK rental for people who really know what they're getting into.

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