Director/Screenplay – Mark Elijah Rosenberg, Producers – Jason Michael Berman, P. Jennifer Dana, Thomas B. Fore, Matthew Parker, Josh Penn & Mark Roberts, Photography – Adam Newport-Berra, Music – Paul Damian Hogan, Visual Effects – AAU-Studio X 400A, Edgeworx Studio LLC., Simple Tricks & Nonsense (Supervisor – Marc Rienzo) & Spy, A Fotokem Company (Supervisor – Michael Lester), Production Design – Steven Brower. Production Company – Tiderock Media/3311 Productions/Department of Motion Pictures/Loveless Productions/Hinkson Entertainment
Mark Strong (Captain William D. Stanaforth), Luke Wilson (Louis “Skinny” Shinner), Sanaa Lathan (Captain Emily Maddox)
Captain William D. Stanaforth is launched by NASA on the one-man Zephyr expedition, a 270 day journey to become the first man to land on Mars. Stanaforth obtained the position after devising a means whereby water could be chemically extracted from the Martian soil. Launched not far behind Stanaforth is Captain Emily Maddox aboard the support mission but Mission Control insists that she turn back after onboard faults are detected. An experiment by Stanaforth goes wrong and ends up polluting his supply of drinking water. Making do with limited back-up supplies, Stanaforth determines to press on instead of admit problems to Mission Control who will demand he turn back. However, the loneliness and the rationing causes his sanity to crumble.
Approaching the Unknown is a directorial debut for Mark Elijah Rosenberg. Rosenberg is the founder of New York’s Rooftop Films, a non-profit festival that has been running since 1997 screening films on various rooftop locations throughout the city. Rosenberg launched Approaching the Unknown with the help of the Sundance Institute and various other funding bodies.
It would be safe to say that without the huge success of Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), we would not have Approaching the Unknown. We’re not quite in the same league as The Asylum and its mockbusters here, nevertheless Approaching the Unknown feels like The Martian made on a low-budget. The two plots are essentially similar – that of a lone astronaut trapped on Mars (or at least heading towards it here) and trying to survive with his science skills following a mission disaster. Approaching the Unknown cuts down on the scale of The Martian – where The Martian had scenes taking place on Mars with cuts back to Mission Control and the rescue mission, almost the whole of the drama here takes place aboard the confined set of the ship. Indeed, almost all of the drama is played out by a single actor (Mark Strong), while the handful of other actors present only react with him as images on a video screen.
That aside, Approaching the Unknown is not an uninteresting film. The film doesn’t have the budget to call on the major effects houses but does perfectly well with what it has – the effects studios chosen certainly don’t let the side down in this department. This is much more of a kitchen sink space mission film. Imagine if you like that The Martian had stayed with Matt Damon in his survival shelter and focused less on his attempts at survival and communication and more on his state of mental health, watching as his hopes slowly decayed. This is more a film about psychology and isolation than it is about engineering ingenuity.
Mark Elijah Rosenberg has researched his science and the film bristles with a sense of verisimilitude. The main problem of plausibility I have is a logistical one – the idea that NASA would send two one-man missions to make the Mars Landing. Firstly, the idea of two rockets is ridiculously more wasteful of cost and resources. Secondly, sending one person on such a far-reaching mission without any back-up on board creates enormous stress and workload for the single astronaut – all the Moon Landings, for instance, have been multi-person for the simple fact that there is back-up if one person is asleep or out of action. Of course, if it had been a two-person mission, the story Approaching the Unknown tells would have been a radically different one. This is a case where the film has let the story it wants to tell get in the way of credibility.
Mark Elijah Rosenberg subsequently went on to direct the six-part National Geographic speculative documentary series Approaching the Unknown (2017), positing ideas about the future and evolution of humanity and technology.