Based on Stephen Petranek's 2015 book How We'll Live on Mars, FX's 2016 mini-series Mars was an ambitious hybrid of documentary and near-future science fiction. The "science" portion serves up new interviews with the likes of Elon Musk (founder of SpaceX and architect for Tesla, among other ventures), Neil deGrasse Tyson (noted astrophysicist and author), Andy Weir (author of The Martian, which became the 2015 film), Robert Zubrin (aerospace engineer), Stephen Petranek (author of How We'll Live on Mars), and many others, which are sprinkled throughout all six 45-minute episodes and, more often than not, lay the groundwork. But the wide majority of Mars is a fictionalized account of mankind's possible first trip to Mars in 2033 by way of Daedalus and its six-person crew.
Unfortunately, the dramatic portions of Mars fall entirely short in both scope and execution, rarely building any amount of tension or genuine interest in its rather bland cast of characters and their obstacles. There's almost no one on board worth getting excited about, and if I didn't watch this with subtitles enabled I probably wouldn't have remembered more than three of their names. Said crew, which includes mission commander Ben Cotton (Ben Sawyer), systems engineer Hana Seung (Jihae Kim), doctor Amelie Durand (Clementine Poidatz), engineer Sammi Rotibi (Robert Foucault), hydrologist Javier Delgado (Alberto Ammann), and exobiologist Marta Kamen (Anamaria Marinca), rarely develops beyond their positions, which severely degrades any chance of Mars feeling like more than a photocopy of several dozen sci-fi shows in the wake of Star Trek 50 years ago. That's not to say that the very core of Mars isn't worthwhile or interesting: it's production design and CGI flourishes are quite good for the most part, and the near-future aspect of its proposition gives it a certain level of intrigue within our own reach.
Yet the idea of cutting between (undercooked) drama and far more interesting real-world content was an experiment that probably sounded better on paper...and while I appreciate how the "2016" segments often blend thematically with their "2033" counterparts, the lopsided end result undercuts both pieces of this ambitious and flawed production. But, like the formidable challenge of interplanetary travel, this six episode mini-series might be taking its first baby steps, and a stronger focus on creating more intriguing and developed characters could give its unusual approach a lot more weight if a second season materializes. In the meantime, Fox's three-disc Blu-ray package offers a strong amount of support that established fans will appreciate, including a capable A/V presentation and a solid assortment of bonus features that get their own disc...sadly the exception these days, and no longer the rule.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Since Mars is a mixture of low-budget science fiction and documentary, this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is bound to vary in quality---but since most of the source material is relatively new, scene transitions aren't as jarring as expected. New interviews (fiction or otherwise) and dramatic scenes exhibit good image detail and a smooth, obviously digital appearance that doesn't look overly waxy or processed. Black levels, color saturation, and textures are all fine, with a few subtle effects and color filters added for style, and there are no obvious defects aside from a few instances of noise and softness. Older clips, on the other hand, look rougher in direct comparison---and though I understand the presence of so much dirt and debris, my main gripe is that the 1.33:1 footage has been cropped to fit a 16x9 frame. It doesn't necessarily ruin the framing during these brief scenes, but it amplifies problems that were obvious to begin with. Still, Mars boasts a clean and polished look that often defies its modest budget.
NOTE: The promotional images featured on this page are strictly decorative and do not represent the title under review.
Likewise, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix creates a suitable atmosphere. Music cues and subtle background noises are well-placed and effective without screaming for attention. LFE is also present at times, filling out a good chunk of the sonic landscape without drowning everything else. Interview and documentary clips are obviously less busy, with clear dialogue and no obvious defects along the way. Overall, this lossless audio presentation serves up a great mix that's not as overcooked as it could've been in lesser hands. Optional English (SDH), French, German, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles are included, as well as Spanish, French, and German dubs.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The simple but stylish interface is very easy to navigate, with minimal pre-menu distractions and a handy "Resume" function for smooth playback. This three-disc set arrives in a hinged keepcase with a promotional insert.
Disc 3 serves up a decent number of supplements, all of which go into modest detail about the real-life and fictional elements of this mini-series. "Making Mars" (47:17) is a solid opener, obviously splitting the difference by providing a general overview of the series' development and on-set experience mixed with several cast and crew interviews. "Behind the Scenes" (14:38) is a more casual version of the same material, as are a few additional Interviews (25:06) with the cast and crew. Other more traditional extras include "Before Mars - A Prequel" (33:01), which offers a decent amount of backstory for the dramatic series that almost stands as a bonus episode. With it comes "Before Mars: Behind the Scenes" (2:28), which obviously doesn't go into much detail but is still appreciated.
The rest of this material is more documentary-based---so if you're like me and favored that aspect of Mars, these last three supplements should be more up your alley. "Getting to Mars" (1080p; 13:51) identifies and theorizes the current equipment and technology necessary for making a successful trip. "Living on Mars" (10:26) goes one step further, covering similar territory about inhabiting the planet. Finally, "More Mars" (10:29) takes a more historical approach, serving up facts and figures about the planet, its formation, and the landscape past and present. All told, there's well over two and a half hours of fairly solid content here; it's much more than expected and, aside from the lack of an audio commentary or two, what we get covers all the standard bases as well as possible.
Mars is less than half of a worthwhile sci-fi production, if only because the most interesting parts are all "sci" and no "fi". The undercooked drama that dominates this six hour mini-series' lifespan is still interesting at times, if only due to the solid groundwork laid by science and the short-term future projections that give its foundation a credible base. Yet the obvious shortcomings of its narrative storytelling and flat, forgettable characters don't afford Mars a lot of staying power, no matter how great the documentary potions are. Luckily, those who enjoyed the mini-series more than I did will be thrilled with Fox's Blu-ray package, which combines a fine A/V presentation with almost three hours of varied bonus features. Rent It, although established fans should consider this a safe bet.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.