If you really wanted to watch The Martian with 100% less Matt Damon, potatoes, and jokes, then Approaching the Unknown is probably for you. But don't take the humorless screenplay as reason not to see it; the film has plenty of other rewards, such as a contemplative mood that recalls Solaris, vintage special effects that will remind some of Duncan Jones' Moon, and a committed performance by Mark Strong, an actor who doesn't get nearly enough time to command the screen solo.
The enigmatic Strong makes for a different kind of stranded astronaut than Damon's Mark Watney. He plays the grim and introspective William Stanaforth, who has volunteered for either a suicide mission or the greatest act of blind faith ever. He'll travel alone to Mars, becoming the first man ever on the planet, where he'll establish a base camp for future astronauts (Sanaa Lathan plays the next one, Maddux) and brave souls willing to build a human colony. Oh, and he'll never return home to Earth. It's not even in the cards. "I’m not going there to die. I’m going to Mars to live", he says early on.
What kind of person signs up for something like that? Stanaforth proves to be an intensely isolated man, which can be both intriguing and very dull. At one point he invents a machine that makes water out of dirt, so to test it he goes out into the desert without any supplies, risking his own death. The machine works (So where's the patent, Stanaforth??), thankfully, but it shows the lengths he's willing to go to make a landmark achievement. The Mars mission is basically an expanded version of his water experiment. We see him crammed into a little shuttle, where he diligently sticks to routine: workout, water his plants, reflect on the vastness of space. First-time director Mark Elijah Rosenberg (the creator of Rooftop Films, by the way) captures Stanaforth's smallness in relation to the epic wonders of the universe, using practical effects and boxy set pieces that look like they were ripped out of the 1960s. In technical terms it's simple, effective, and enjoyable to watch Strong interact with his surrounds, plain though most of it may be.
But the film largely hinges on the performance by Strong, who is in nearly every frame. As Stanaforth, he captures the man's deteriorating mental state, loneliness, and staunch independence. More than once that need to go his own way causes conflicts with the analysts at Mission Control (Luke Wilson plays the main one), but he also recognizes that interactions with other humans are a luxury he needs to make time for. Eventually he drifts into an isolation that is maddeningly depressing. Of course the mission doesn't go as planned, and Stanaforth is faced with his own mortality. This causes a mental breakdown compounded by the reality of how insignificant his death will be in the grand scheme of things. Through Stanaforth's cheerless voice-over we accompany him within his planet-bound prison, until it begins to feel like a prison for us, too. Approaching the Unknown is sparse and often exhausting in its solemnity, but there's value in watching a man come face-to-face with the triviality of his own existence, and see it as an opportunity for greater exploration.
Rating: 3 out of 5