At first glance, the most obvious analogue to Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s Approaching the Unknown would be The Martian, both being tales of lone men on treacherous missions to Mars. But Approaching the Unknown operates on a much smaller and more philosophical scale — and is ultimately more satisfying.
Captain William D. Stanaforth (Mark Strong) has volunteered to take a one-way trip to the angry red planet to prepare it for further colonizers, but disaster strikes a few months into the flight. We never leave his point of view; there are no scenes back on Earth showing the planet banding together to bring the hunky spaceman home. His Mission Control buddy Skinny (Luke Wilson) is seen entirely via computer screen, and other than occasional flashbacks as well as a stopover at a space station populated by two broken men who urge Stanaforth to abort his mission because life in space sucks, the majority of the film is just Strong in a few cramped sets.
Approaching the Unknown is the best science fiction movie since Gravity, and certainly the most melancholy since Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, while also harking back to the kind of thoughtful stories once found in magazines like Galaxy Science Fiction and radio programs like X Minus One.
In an age in which anything can be shown onscreen, sometimes all you need is one person reckoning with the infinite.
Approaching the Unknown
Directed by Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Opens June 3, AMC Loews 34th Street
Available on demand
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 31, 2016