Directed by George Butler
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic/ 1.33:1
Running Time: 40 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: EHD, French, Spanish
Release Date: July 31, 2007
Review Date: July 15, 2007
The exploration of space has been one of our country’s less than paramount priorities over the last few decades after its fervent initial forays in the 1960s and 1970s. However, while further operations on the moon have stalled over time, the planet Mars has become one of the more interesting celestial bodies our scientists have begun to obsess over lately. Roving Mars details a Mars expedition to study scientifically the actual rocks on Mars’ surface. Geological analysis of the makeup of these rocks might clearly begin to crack the riddle of our sister planet and answer some age-old questions about the possibilities of past life on the Red Planet or the possibilities of any future space colonies being set up there.
Narrated by Paul Newman, Roving Mars is an IMAX film meaning it’s going to be long on science theory and procedure being presented on an understandable level for lay persons and short on actual running time. Thus, there’s no chance for any one aspect of the mission to be dealt with in any great detail. We get fascinating but brief background information on previous Mars excursions, the conception and too-rapid construction of two land rovers for use on exploring the surface of the planet, the separate launchings of the two spacecrafts carrying the robot rovers, and the exciting and unexpected results of the missions. That all of this is covered in less than forty minutes is astonishing, but even a non-science geek like myself wanted much, much more information, something not possible with the standard running time of an IMAX film.
Though Newman does indeed narrate the film, the primary information giver is the head of the operation Steve Squyres who fairly bubbles over with enthusiasm about the tremendous effort put into this project by his entire team. And there aren’t many better pulse-pounding sequences in fiction or non-fiction films than in those moments where the team waits to receive any kind of signal from the spacecraft indicating that it survived the journey and landing and still ended up in one workable piece. Director George Butler, who proved particularly adept in previously documenting the pivotal points in the careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Pumping Iron) and E.H. Shackleton (Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure), certainly has no problems guiding our fascination for robots Spirit and Opportunity as they make their treacherous trips through millions of miles to the rough, rocky surface of Mars.
Philip Glass has provided a marvelously engaging score for the feature, and there’s clever, very subtle mixtures of actual Mars footage with well done CGI to simulate the journey and some of the views of the robots in motion that would have been impossible for them to capture themselves. Again, it’s riveting stuff, but it’s over much too quickly.
The DVD offers both a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer and a 1.33:1 full frame version on the same side of the disc. Viewing the widescreen version, I found the picture quality variable. Some of it is quite sharp, but interviews with some NASA scientists are strangely soft and lacking in detail. Photographic images of space and the CGI recreations are beautifully and richly colorful making the softer scenes all the more frustrating. There are no picture artifacts with the encoding. The film has been divided into 10 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is robustly recorded and delivered on the DVD. The majestic music score and the strong sounds from the launch of the first robot Spirit are as powerful as in fictional liftoffs in films like Apollo 13 and Contact, engaging all the channels with much power and heft.
Since the IMAX feature itself is so brief, the disc offers another documentary Mars: Past, Present & Future, an additional 24½ minutes of behind the scenes information on the making of the film and featuring comments from Squyres, director Butler, film producer Frank Marshall, and even students who were brought to NASA to intern on the project. This excellent supplement is presented in widescreen anamorphic video and often looks sharper than the main feature.
Very amusing in its naiveté and speculation is a 52-minute 1957 episode of Disney’s TV series Disneyland which devoted an hour set in Tomorrowland to exploring “Mars and Beyond.” Narrated by the famous voice of 1950s science fiction both good and bad Paul Frees, this program uses clever animation, some interview subjects from various observatories, and looks at renowned scientists like Wernher von Braun working on launching a rocket to Mars and what some of the theories of the time were about what we might find there. Though the opening and closing credits are in black and white, the program itself is in color, obviously in the 4:3 TV ratio of the time. Surprising to me was a segment detailing a trip to Mars which looks like the basis for Stanley Kubrick's psychedelic trip to Jupiter in 2001.
The Sneak Peeks on this Disney disc are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen: Underdog, Meet the Robinsons, and the usual tempting Blu-ray promise trailer.
For those interested in astronomy and our recent attempts to learn what we can from the rocks on the surface of Mars, Roving Mars comes very highly recommended. Don’t be surprised, however, if you find your appetite for information merely whetted by this fine documentary.