DVD Review: Roving Mars
Release Date: July 31, 2007
Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment
· George Butler
· Paul Newman
· Stephen Squyres
· Rob Manning
· Charles Elachi
· Wayne Lee
· IMDb: Roving Mars
by Paul Schultz
Published: July 31, 2007
Originally released in the IMAX format, "Roving Mars" chronicles
the NASA mission of exploration that sent two robotic rovers to the surface of the red planet. Joining "Aliens of the Deep" and "Ghosts of the Abyss", this Disney documentary loses some of the wonder in its translation to a smaller screen, yet those inquisitive about space will still find it worth the journey. You can choose either 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen or 1.33:1 fullscreen presentations.
Clocking in at a brisk 40 minutes, "Roving Mars" moves quickly from
the introductory narration by Paul Newman to show scientists scurrying to ready a pair of land rovers for launch in a window of optimal orbital alignment between Earth and Mars that occurs only once every couple of years. Project leader and scientist Steve Squyers guides us through NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in
Pasadena, California, and introduces the viewer to the challenges faced in making this happen. His enthusiasm sets to tone for the piece (as does the ethereal Philip Glass score), and helps to gloss over those parts (few and far between) where the technical jargon threatens to make your eyes glaze over.
NASA admits to the low percentage of success with these types of missions and so has gone to the effort and expense of creating two identical rovers to increase the odds. Now you know how the budget can eclipse billions of dollars. Each exhibits its own personality during development, and a public contest is run to give them names. The winning combination is
"Spirit" and "Opportunity" (I wonder how far down "Thelma" and "Louise" was on that list?). The intimate access to the assembly is fascinating, if not action-packed.
Launched separately in the summer of 2003, the seven-month voyage of Spirit and Opportunity to Mars is depicted through computer animation, complete with thunderous activation of stage rockets. At this point my thread of scientific accuracy was snapped in a wall of sound. While the
technically-accurate silence might not have been as impressive, the really loud blasts only seemed to exist to justify the full use of a viewer's sound system. Beyond that, the CGI is magnificent in its recreation of the "bouncing balloon" landing system utilized by the rovers, and the imagined landscape brimming with water in some long-ago era.
The only tension experienced is the moment of touch-down as the assembled scientists wait expectantly for that first radio signal. When it arrives, an explosion of celebration commences and, by now, you've become invested enough in the story to join in what amounts to be elation over a single line appearing on a computer screen. From here on out, actual photographs of the terrain are interspersed with CGI views of where the rover is located to give you a seamless "you-are-there" experience.
These two rovers were meant to have a lifespan of 90 days, yet continue to function to this day, some four years later. This extra exploration has
yielded exciting discoveries about our neighboring planet, and more than
justifies the existence of this record of its exploits. One wishes for an "extended version" of this documentary to update the progress even if
it does mean getting more scientifically technical. What we get, though,
is an interesting exercise that attempts to make science accessible, but doesn't quite delve into the details satisfyingly enough for those truly curious.
Mars: Past, Present & Future - The filmmakers and the scientists reminiscence about early influences that led them to this project, and the depiction of Mars in pulp fiction and the like. The present dwells on the making of "Roving Mars" and the future introduces us to young students in NASA's "Imagine Mars" program. Learning how to live on the red planet is briefly discussed. (24:44)
Mars and Beyond (1957) - This relic is worth the price of
admission. It is a complete episode of Walt Disney's weekly anthology
series (called "Disneyland" at the time) containing hypothetical discoveries on Mars, complete with fabulous animation. Introduced by Disney himself, the show gives a history of Mars as perceived throughout the years by long-ago philosophers to writers to present-day science. Life on other worlds is considered, with evolution being the only presented possibility. The animators obviously had fun trying to one-up each other with one outrageous extraterrestrial after another filling the screen as what creatures might populate the universe are contemplated. Finally, there is an attempt to show what a real mission to Mars might look like and what would be involved to make it a reality. (52:44)
Previews - "Underdog," "Meet the Robinsons"