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Review: Mars-bound ‘Approaching the Unknown’ is a stirring journey

Mark Strong
Mark Strong stars in the mission-to-Mars drama “Approaching the Unknown.”
(Vertical Entertainment)

It would be easy to dismiss the mission-to-Mars drama “Approaching the Unknown” as a “The Martian”-lite, except, unlike last year’s Matt Damon hit, there’s little that’s light about this essentially one-man show. In fact, it’s a rather serious meditation on space exploration and such big-picture concepts as life and death. In its own compact, budget-conscious way, it’s quite a stirring if low-key journey. 

British actor Mark Strong (“The Imitation Game”) is excellent as the very American astronaut Capt. William Stanaforth, who’s on a 270-day “one-way” trip to colonize the Red Planet. Most of the action takes place inside Stanaforth’s ship, the Zephyr, as he maintains the spacecraft, practices daily routines, makes journal entries (heard in voiceover) and interacts via video chats with vigilant mission control contact Louis “Skinny” Skinner (Luke Wilson) and Emily Maddox (Sanaa Lathan), another solo astronaut following, at least for a time, in Stanaforth’s path. 

All’s well for our confident hero until his miscalculations result in a tainted water supply, prompting “Skinny” to demand the captain’s immediate return to Earth. Instead, the obsessed Stanaforth cuts off communication, switches into survival mode and flies hellbent toward Mars. But will he make it?

Under the steady hand of writer-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg, tension and pathos build, slowly sweeping us along with the captain’s fraught yet hopeful exploration. Crisp cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra, strong production design by Steven Brower and deft visual effects round out this intriguing adventure.

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‘Approaching the Unknown’

MPAA Rating: R for language

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; also on VOD


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