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Roving Mars (review)

Eat Our Dust

The first human being to walk on Mars doesn’t know it yet, but she is gonna see this movie on a school trip to a science museum and have her little eight-year-old mind blown. And the idea of Mars is gonna lodge itself in her head so that the only way she can get it out is to actually go there and leave her footprints in the red sand.
I could have been that little girl, if I wasn’t already a grownup who, if she’s lucky, will at least live to watch that historic moment on TV. Hello, I’m MaryAnn, and I’m a Mars geek. I didn’t think it was possible for me to be more in love with the idea of Mars, of going to Mars, of exploring Mars, of seeing the Martian sights, but now I am.

It’s because of Roving Mars, the new IMAX movie that’s pretty much a big, beautiful ad for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and so what? Sending plucky little robots to other planets in an effort to expand the boundaries of human knowledge and wisdom is a far better way to spend our tax money than fattening Halliburton’s coffers. And how cool would it be to work at a place called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, anyway?

I’m not the only grownup who gets excited about this kind of stuff — you can see them here, all the scientists who build rovers to wander on alien shores, who design the parachutes that will bear those rovers safely through alien atmospheres, who write computer programs to let us talk to and control the little guys once they arrive. “It’s going to another planet, for real,” one of them exclaims about his rover like he found the actual Santa Claus unloading booty in his living room on Christmas morning.

It’s a tossup, actually: Do I want to know more about the people who sent Spirit and Opportunity to Mars, or do I just want to see more of those gorgeous red landscapes the rovers keep sending back from the Red Planet? These IMAX things are only 40 minutes long, so we can’t have it all, so mostly, I guess I’m pretty happy with the mix here, of people and machine, of genuine images and computer-assisted animations based on them.

See, cuz I knew they hadn’t sent an IMAX camera to Mars with these two ‘bots — the damn things are nearly as big as the entire rovers themselves — but it turns out that the digital cameras on the rovers are perfectly perfect for turning out IMAX-quality pictures. So director George Butler (who’s previous IMAX outing took him to Antarctica for a movie about the explorer Shackleton) give us a mix of pictures from Mars — and damn, if you think they look cool when you’re surfing JPL’s Web site, wait till you see ‘em 100 feet high — and animations based on those images, in order to give us an idea of what the rovers look like while they’re tooling around on Mars. (There’s no one there to take pictures of the rovers themselves, of course.) And the animated sequence of one of the rovers taking off from Earth, with each of the rocket stages giving it an extra boost through the atmosphere and on its way into space? Wow wow wow, and an extra wow. This is space-geek nirvana, lemme tell ya.

If there’s one big thing to complain about, it’s the one thing that space geeks know and Butler seems not to: sound waves don’t carry in space. Sure, it may sound dramatic to have whooshing noises accompany the robots to Mars, but it just ain’t so. It’s the one thing that spoils Roving Mars, particularly when the rest of it is so intent on being scientifically accurate.

But I can forgive. I feel like I’ve been to Mars now, and I can’t wait to go back — hopefully to, as another eager space nerd puts it here, leave “bootprints in our wheel tracks.”

MPAA: rated G

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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