Geoff Marslett's Mars is immediately intriguing based on its visual style, which may be the closest a film ever came to looking like a graphic novel that I have yet to see. Sin City merged the styles of film noir and graphic novel to create a film that's dark and murky visual scheme gave it new layers of life, but Marslett's directorial debut includes the graininess that would ostensibly be visible in a graphic novel had it come to life before one's eyes. The result is a film that looks very similar to A Scanner Darkly or Waking Life, one of Richard Linklater's uniquely animated, existential films with an animation style that, to my knowledge, hasn't really been exploited since.
Marslett achieved the unique animation style through the similar rotoscoping technology Linklater put to use with the aforementioned films, though through all the heavy colorization in the characters' features and details, the design doesn't mirror that shiny sleekness Linklater's films did. The film's animation likely comes into play due to Marslett's scope and ambition outweighing the mass of his bank account, and the result is a lot better than one would imagine, though its film school-style narrative and structure comes through when you realize the film doesn't really have any strong insights to cling to.
More on that later. The film focuses on three astronauts, Charlie (Mark Duplass), a cocky, washed-up man who relishes in his great spacewalk victory years ago, Casey (Zoe Simpson), a New Zealand doctor who is about to fulfill her dream of being the first woman on Mars, and Hank (Paul Gordon), the gang's leader, who seems like he's forever wallowing in a cloud of bong exhaust with his slow, sometimes slurry, manner of speech, who are embarking on a trip to Mars. The three are constantly monitored by their boss Shep (Howe Gelb) at Mission Control, who instructs Hank to go against the grain numerous times without informing his crewmates, in addition to a group of Television journalists. All eyes are on these three brave souls and their uncertain futures as they embark on being the first astronauts to set foot on the red planet.
Once your eyes have feasted on Marslett's beautiful and layered animation, in addition to embracing the hilarious sarcasm of Duplass and the listlessness of Gordon, Mars devolves into a romantic story, perhaps questioning "is there really love on Mars?" (read that twice, if need be). Marslett strays away from any kind of political or social commentary here, and unfortunately, that feels a bit like a copout with this film, as Marslett has gone all this way, literally out of this world, to basically craft a cutesy, hipster romance on another planet. Sure there's evident romanticism, and sure, Duplass and Simpson strike an amiable chemistry, but when the visuals are this unique, the plot is this significant, and the characters are deemed so important, it seems kind of elementary to confine them to a basic romance plot when they're Mars of all places.
Mars gets a lot of creativity points in its visual scheme, and it's pleasantly short at barely eighty minutes, making this expedition a brief and marginally satisfying one overall. The problem this film - which is essentially a mumblecore film set in space - is that because it's so minimalist in plot, the screenplay must immediately rely on characters, themes, and dialog in order to be successful, and instead of soaring to new heights, like Marslett does with the visuals and the narrative, he keeps everything relatively grounded. The result is sweet, cheerful, but kind of forgettable.
Starring: Mark Duplass, Zoe Simpson, Hank Gordon, and Howe Gelb.
Review by Steve Pulaski from the Internet Movie Database.