Film

Here’s the Arctic Road Trip NASA Took to Prep for a Real Journey to Mars

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If we’re going to ship people onto Mars, that toxic frozen ball of dust storms and mystery, NASA figures we should first be able to brave the least hospitable stretches of our own planet.

Jean-Christophe Jeauffre’s nuts-and-bolts wilderness doc follows and celebrates a very earthbound NASA expedition: the test-driving of a prototype Martian Humvee Rover two thousand miles across the sea ice of the Northwest Passage. The journey isn’t quite comparable to a road trip across the red planet’s Vastitas Borealis, but in terms of hardship, danger, and dead-silent isolation, it’s as close as we can get without a rocket.

Zachary Quinto narrates the six-person adventure from the participants’ own journals, and he’s fine and excitable reading lines that sometimes sound shakily translated: “Will we make our first contact with a new life-form beneath the Martian fog?” More effective is a great stoner’s question Quinto poses when the crew has to risk turning off the rover’s engine so that they can do some repairs. “Do Humvees dream of electric sheep?” he asks, lightening the film’s only tense scene: There’s a chance, we’re told, that the engine might not come back on.

But it’s hard not to wish that narration would go away — and that the film would slow down — during the many sequences of the rover and a couple of snowmobiles plowing through the vast Arctic emptiness, an alien world of lonely white. Passage to Mars is almost apologetic about being stuck on our world; to make up for it, it continually cuts to digital explorations of Mars itself, while Quinto asks more haunting questions. It’s a thrill to see so careful a re-creation — and some actual footage — of Martian geography.

Passage to Mars

Directed by Jean-Christophe Jeauffre

Sundance Selects

Opens September 30, IFC Center