If you walked out of The Martian thinking that the effects were too good, the plot was too engaging, and the hero was too charismatic, then you’re in luck. Writer-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s Approaching the Unknown is the movie for you. An excruciatingly slow and suspense-free sci-fi epic in miniature, the film tells the story of astronaut William Stanaforth, who sets off on a solo, one-way mission to Mars to set up a base for future human colonizers. There’s a lot to potentially chew on with his claustrophobic voyage of solitude and the existential toll of leaving Earth behind with no prospect of returning. But the film doesn’t seem particularly interested in grappling with any of those issues beyond the most superficial level.
As played by Mark Strong, an actor who’s soft-spoken menace and blunt-force persona have been better used in films like The Imitation Game and The Kingsman: Secret Service, Stanaforth is not a very interesting guy to spend 90 minutes alone with. Not only is he barely fleshed out as a character, he expresses his dilemma in a series of whispery, introspective inner monologues delivered in a sleepy monotone that makes you think that someone replaced his on-board supply of Tang with Nyquil. He becomes slightly (very slightly) more awake during his periodic video conferences with Luke Wilson back at Mission Control in Houston. But this is really a one-hander with a hand that fell asleep. (Sanaa Lathan as second astronaut in a separate craft following three months behind barely qualifies as a cameo).
There’s actually one moment in the film when it tiptoes up to the threshold of being interesting. That’s when Stanaforth makes a pit stop on his way to Mars at a space station inhabited by two engineers who seem to have gone mad in their solitude. There’s a creepy promise in that moment reminiscent of Duncan Jones’ wonderful sci-fi shut-in chiller, Moon but Rosenberg abandons it before it can pay off. Before you know it, Stanaforth is back on his ship with his boring old self again. It’s probably unfair to compare Approaching the Unknown with a splashier, deeper-pocketed film like The Martian, but it’s also inevitable. That film made science and engineering and problem solving thrilling. This one just makes it all feel as dry and boring as a textbook. C-