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Roving Mars

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 40 Minutes

Written by: George Butler and Robert Andrus

Directed by: George Butler

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Mars and Beyond,

Specs: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, 1.33:1 Full Screen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (10 Scenes)

Released: July 31st, 2007

 

Originally released as an IMAX documentary in 2006, "Roving Mars" chronicles one of NASA's attempts to discover the mysteries of the red planet. After several failures to get rovers on Mars, NASA gets a lucky break when their latest two rovers - named Spirit and Opportunity - make it to the planet. It's not easy feat, however: it takes the work of roughly 400 people, and then there are some technical snags before launch day. A lot actually rides on getting the rovers there intact: it takes a good seven months to travel to Mars, and the coordinates need to be precise. In the past, missions failed simply because the rovers missed their marks.

George Butler's documentary is basically divided into two parts: roughly the first half is about the building of the rovers, and the planning and work that went into their launches. The second half is the success story: the two Mars rovers landing, and how they function on the planet and what they uncover. Those expecting big revelations about the planet from this documentary will be disappointed: sorry to spoil the ending, but the rovers basically uncover rocks, which gives hints that there probably was life on the planet. There is not much of a conclusion either, and I guess it's a pretty open-ended one at that: it turns out the operating power on the rovers are pretty powerful, and will keep searching for things of interest (they can make decisions on the "personalities" they develop - ah, the wonders of technology) until they get cold and their batteries give out.

I wouldn't say "Roving Mars" is a boring documentary: there are moments of interest, and it's hard not to appreciate all the teamwork and effort that goes into such complex space missions. But the movie lacks any kind of wonder, which is a shame given all the mystery to Mars and outer space in general. There's no punch either, as the tension isn't even played up. The possible landing problems discovered at the test? Noticed, and fixed. Will the rovers even land? Of course they do, and then there's a ton of celebration. (Hmm... I wonder if this documentary would have been aborted if there was a screw-up.) But for the most part, I found the film pretty monotonous and dull. That should be saying something, given that this movie is far from a major time commitment at a mere 40 minutes.

I'm sure part of the original appeal of the movie was seeing this on a large format screen. Given the visual grandeur the movie seems to be showing off, I am sure this film looks much more stunning in IMAX - and maybe a bit more fun, as if your senses are being overwhelmed with this mission. Sure, the movie is well shot overall, but you're obviously not going to get a larger-than-life experience by watching this movie on a television. On the plus side though, the Philip Glass score is intact. Glass' score fits remarkably well with the footage - it's a bit broad, vague and even a little hypnotic, making it a good match when comparing it to Mars, too.

Overall, "Roving Mars" is a good watch for a school science class, but I'd only say it's worth going out of your way to see if you have a passionate interest in Mars, or space and space missions in general. The movie has focus, but there's something introverted about its overall narrative. You may learn something, but there isn't anything memorable to be found here.

 

"Roving Mars" is given two presentations: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and 1.33:1 full screen. The widescreen transfer looks pretty spiffy: the fleshtones on the talking heads in the documentary look spot-on, detail is pretty superb and the exterior shots - such as when the spacecraft tests are done, and of Mars itself, look pretty glorious and vibrant (even though I'm sure much of Mars is just Hollywood magic here). The only flaws are the usual ones found on most Disney transfers: a high level of noise, and some edge halos. The print is in pretty pristine shape: I only noticed a speck here and there (though what's that half-circle appearing over the left hand side of the screen at the press conference, around the 26 minute mark?). Also, the overall image quality is a bit on the soft and grainy side. Nonetheless, the picture quality captures the flavor of the documentary.

 

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 is pretty nice, and definitely gives off a sense of ambience. There is a lot of chatter in "Roving Mars," so it's good that the dialogue is easy to hear and is quite crisp. The surround effects aren't that impressive, though. There are not many of them and they are not bad, but given the nature of the subject, I was expecting a bit more power to them - particularly of the rockets blasting into space,m and them swooishing down (you're actually probably better off watching "Armageddon" or something for a rocket launch with intensity). Subwoofer use is limited, too. Standing out most is the the ominous Philip Glass score - which is mixed delicately through the channels.

Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in Spanish and French are included, as well as subtitles in those languages and English, and there is also English closed captioning available through your television set.

 

There are only two extras (not included your typical Sneak Peeks), but those who like the movie should thoroughly enjoy them. The first is Mars And Beyond - a 1957 Disneyland special, that's actually longer than the movie at about 50 minutes. Personally, I think it's a more fun watch than "Roving Mars." Through animation and booming narration, this special goes into all sorts of things: myths about Mars, human evolution, stories about space travel and Mars in the context of history. I'm not sure if I'd call this a definitive history of Mars (or space travel or evolution), but for an interesting science lesson and further information about the solar system, it's a pretty fun watch.

There's also Mars: Past, Present & Future - presented in anamorphic widescreen, and lasting about 25 minutes. Using a wide variety of stock footage and clips (including bits from the "Mars And Beyond" Disneyland special), this is actually a hodgepodge of a featurette: it begins with scientists and other really smart people talking about their interest in space and fond memories of watching Sputnik or space missions on TV, and from there, goes into the making of the film - the actual events depicted in the movie, and how the filmmakers formed the project. The soft-spoken George Butler discusses how he got way of the Mars project, producer Frank Marshall talks about coming on board and then there are bits on financing. There are lot of great production anecdotes, but most entertaining is how the Mars project was behind, and then NASA people started to freak out when IMAX cameras got pretty up close and personal. Finally, there's also bits on the red planet itself, plus a college student project called Imagine Mars. In all, this is a great piece that not only gives you an excellent view of how the documentary came together, but also little stories about the scientists and their hard work (complete with lots of tension) that didn't make it into the movie and more about the planet. Why couldn't the actual documentary be this enthralling?

 

"Roving Mars" is an okay watch at 40 minutes, and even if you're not a science geek, chances are good you'll find something of interest. This DVD is nothing truly spectacular, but overall pretty nice: good transfers, a strong-but-standard 5.1 mix and two insightful bonus features that greatly extend the scope of the film. If you're interested it's definitely worth a rental... but if you're a die-hard science and space fan, then you might want to consider adding it to your library.