Perhaps we have become over-familiar with pictures beamed back from space, or maybe computer-generated imagery has outstripped reality, but Roving Mars, the IMAX documentary about robot geologists launched in 2003 to explore the fabled Red Planet, feels anticlimactic. The short large-format film offers impressive animated sequences that, combined with footage shot at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, dramatize the science behind interplanetary exploration. But the actual images from the barren surface of our solar neighbor don't fill the giant screen, the miasmic Martian atmosphere evocative of the effluvium that floats above an overburdened airport.
The purpose of the mission was to land two crafts, christened Spirit and Opportunity, on different parts of the planet in order to analyze rocks and soil, chiefly to determine if water exists or ever existed there, thereby establishing the possibility of life. The oddly anthropomorphic machines, each equipped with ingenious wheels, solar panels, instrument arms and an array of cameras (some to help navigate terrain, some to capture high-definition stills and video), not only reached their targeted sites with remarkable precision, they bounced down safely (with the assistance of innovative parachutes and ingenious cocoons) and operated perfectly, making the mission one of the Space Administration's more spectacular success stories.
Sending a rover to Mars is like shooting a basketball from Los Angeles to New York and hitting nothing but net, explains Steve Squyres, chief scientist for the project, who narrates the film (and wrote the book with the same title). Director George Butler (Pumping Iron, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure) does his best to capture Squyres' childlike excitement and the thrill of high-stakes science, which blends elegant physics, complex engineering and unfettered imagination (not to mention the time and effort of thousands of technicians and the generosity of American taxpayers). The scenes depicting him and his colleagues at work appear staged, nevertheless, which wouldn't be so bad if their labor lent itself to cinematic interpretation. Mostly, they stand about in protective suits, occasionally tying down a recalcitrant cable, gestures hardly worth the expensive of an IMAX camera.
The real hero of Roving Mars is Dan Maas, visual-effects supervisor at Maas Digital, who created the film's animated sequences. Maas blended models of the robots with the digital Martian landscapes sent back by the rovers to recreate their voyages across the planet's craters, canals and ridges-the simulations carefully scrutinized by Squyres to make sure they are authentic, Butler points out. One impressive sequence at the top of the movie imagines a flight inside a Martian canyon, not unlike those filmed inside the Grand Canyon here on Earth. And the rocket ride from Cape Canaveral to Gusev Crater, with its theatrical booster stages and spectacular bounce-down in the ocher dust, is great fun and takes advantage of the IMAX format.
In the end, however, Roving Mars, plugged as a public service by Lockheed Martin, should be applauded for its educational value rather than its dramatic impact, even if science inevitably comes in second to entertainment. The documentary will become the perfect excuse for field trips, although at 40 minutes, teachers can only pray for a double bill.