Most space movies are so damned serious. Every astronaut acts like they’re space-Jesus and that everything they do is some epic human act. That’s what makes Geoff Marslett’s animated feature Mars so refreshing. Everyone—from the snot-splattering engineer to the astronaut who bedazzles his jumpsuit with rhinestones—is laid back to the point of silliness. Even better, Marslett’s eye-catching animation features interplanetary love affairs between humans, robots and aliens—making it a lighthearted date movie, perfect for geeky LGBT boys and girls.
When NASA finds out about the European Space Agency’s unmanned Mars probe, they send a human crew to the red planet to see if there is really life on Mars (cue the Bowie song). The film mostly follows the NASA threesome of clownish Charlie Brownsville, depressed Hank Morrison, and the curious Dr. Casey Cook as they approach Mars. The action cuts between the ESA ground crew, their robot, and the US President and First Lady (played by Texas politician and musician Kinky Friedman and newfound actress Jonna Juul-Hansen) as the astronauts approach the lost probe’s landing site.
Marslett adds hilarious touches—like obnoxious reporters, quasi-futuristic hairdos, and ridiculous launch screens—to lighten things up. He said he wanted the film to explore the wonder, fear, and self-doubt that accompanies any new exploration, especially when you’re falling in love.
And though each character alternately plays tough and reveals their vulnerabilities as Mars approaches, the mumblecore acting style renders them mostly flat—it’s like Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, the banter’s droll but not the people are cartoonish more than human. As a result, you never really connect the wonder of Mars with the wonder of love. Brownsville and Dr. Cook come together over space-boredom and the wonders of interplanetary travel, but they never experience the exhilaration, explosions, and eeriness that accompanies actual relationships. Marslette succeeds however in making the robot love story the film’s strongest and most interesting plot point—it’s no wonder that the idea formed the heart of the idea when it was originally a short film.
The real star in Mars is the animation itself. If you’re a fan of Ralph Bakshi live-tracing or the rotoscoping of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, you’ll find Marslett’s style somewhere in between the two. Marslett shot the entire film in front of a 40 x 20 foot cyclorama green screen, so most scenes look like they were shot in a studio rather than in outer space, which detracts somewhat from the atmosphere. However, he also developed a computer program to manipulate his footage’s color and overlay actors with line detail; later adding hand-drawn backgrounds and computer animated landscapes, that are both vibrant and charming—it’ll makes you wonder what the geeky animator will dream up with next.
RATING: Three out of five love satellites. Mars is a fun, often funny lighthearted romp and the animation’s beautiful. The shoe-gazing characters and green screen staging won’t put you into orbit. But still, it’s a satisfying flick for animation fans and date night.