Film Review: Approaching the Unknown

The saving grace of this dull outer-space thriller is the abundant talent of actor Mark Strong.
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A sole person traveling alone through space in their spacecraft is an image and premise that’s been used many times now, including in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey, which inspired so many films that followed it. Watching writer-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s Approaching the Unknown, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons with Ridley Scott’s far more entertaining and skillful 2015 film, The Martian.

“Mars is just a tiny dot in the sky” begins the running narrative by Mark Strong’s Captain William Stanaforth, who’s traveling to the red planet on the spaceship Zephyr to begin the first steps of colonizing Mars after figuring out a way to create water on the desolate planet. When problems arise, being on his own might be the biggest reason why he never gets to Mars.

In recent years, Strong has appeared in smaller roles in decent films like The Imitation Game and larger roles in bad movies like Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent comedy The Brothers Grimsby. Accomplishing the Unknown is essentially a one-man show for Strong, and once you’ve adjusted to the British actor’s American accent, it allows him to do some fun stuff, including a bit of dancing to keep himself entertained.

The film mostly shows Stanaforth reflecting on how he got where he is, while reading from his daily journal and answering questions submitted to him by students in order to kill time. His only direct communication is with Luke Wilson as his contact back at the NASA base, while Sanaa Lathan appears briefly as the captain of another spaceship on her way to Mars. Other than those one or two people on a monitor, it’s basically all Strong.

The biggest conflict Stanaforth faces is when his drinking water becomes contaminated and he has to use his scientific knowledge to survive, as the film flashes back to a similar situation when he went out into the desert to work on his theories for creating water. It’s hard to figure out for how long Stanaforth is travelling through space aimlessly, but by the end Strong is sporting a scraggly beard and has lost touch with his sanity.

To his credit, Rosenberg wrote a decent screenplay, and the commanding presence of his lead actor makes him look better as a director, but it doesn’t stop this from being an exceedingly dull film. In some ways, it harks back to the similarly low-budget Europa Report, and it’s about as exciting, since very little happens with very few real surprises. Even when Lathan’s ship goes off-course, it never feels like she’s in much danger, because the crisis is quickly resolved and then forgotten.

On the other hand, Approaching the Unknown is a great-looking film for its limited budget, with impressive production design by Steven Brower creating the interior of the Zephyr where we spend so much time, as well as beautiful starscapes outside. Paul Damian Hogan’s score does a fine job establishing the film’s minimalist tone and creating tension when needed.

Approaching the Unknownisn’t terrible, although it never builds to any sort of desired payoff and there have been so many better movies in this vein—Duncan Jones’ Moon, for example. In many ways, this premise feels like one that may have worked better as a science-fiction novel (or even a play) rather than as a film. Mark Strong deserves better material than this.

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