UK Release Date – TBC
For some the potential of a mission to Mars is a pipe-dream or a diversion from problems here on planet Earth. For others it’s a prime example of the ambition of the human species, and our obsession with achieving the impossible. Whatever your thoughts on space exploration it’s certainly a topic full of existential musings, which seems to be why writer-director Duane Murray has chosen this subject. To be clear this isn’t a story about science fiction, but instead a human drama about doomed romances, failed careers and social isolation. Would you choose to get away from it all on a one way trip to the stars? Your mileage may vary depending on your personality, but for some the question will be a poignant one.
Mild mannered geologist Damon (Kristian Bruun) has a whole lot of personal problems. His boss is a money obsessed opportunist and his long term girlfriend has forced him into the basement of their house so she can start over with a trendy yoga practising layabout. Out of romantic luck and out of a job Damon spends his days alone at the beach with playing a metal detector instead of moving on with his life. Surrounded by people that want him to be more daring, more exciting, or simply more amoral, things aren’t going well to say the least. But despite all of these things piling up his life is about to change when he finds out about a reality show that will depict life on Mars.
It’s all pretty boiler-plate in terms of setups and developments, although there are at least some interesting twists along the way. Out one night alone at the beach Damon just happens to bump into musician Phoebe (Cara Gee) who sets of a series of events that will change his outlook. The problems with this sort of cliché are immediately apparent when she’s exactly the kind of the artistic extrovert that he needs to help him overcome his depression. She’s only handing out flyers to random strangers to get them to read about the television show after all. But this is broadly speaking a romantic drama so these tropes are unsurprising.
He helps her find a missing earring in the sand and she helps him film a video application for the Red Rover series. She conveniently get stood up for a date and he’s just at the point in his life where he wants to take new chances. It’s an understandable story with plenty of relatable components. Maybe running away from real problems to pretend that New Mexico is a Martian colony isn’t such a good idea after all? But there’s still a nagging sense that Phoebe isn’t getting enough characterisation as things go on, despite a few scenes that suggest her music career isn’t doing that well. The film manages to give everyone enough dialogue to prevent them from becoming too one dimensional, but it could all be far stronger.
The Mars settlement plot itself is more a character building test than a real storyline, which at least feels appropriate. Nobody takes the idea seriously and all of the other applicants seem to be experts in things like botany or engineering. Damon lacks confidence and tries to build a rocket capsule in the basement instead of selling himself to the show. His old boss just sees money and his ex-girlfriend wants him out of the house more than ever. It’s all fairly awkward thanks to the cramped living conditions and the unhelpful attitudes he faces. But when things are at their lowest Phoebe might just be able to help, even if her own personal baggage is starting to rear its head.
There’s a lot of self loathing and anger involved despite things seeming to go right for Damon in the second act. Thanks to a solid central performance from Kristian Bruun it’s all fairly engaging despite some uneven pacing and lacklustre characterisation. Cara Gee is a bright spark for both the protagonist and the viewer, whether it’s during her most enthusiastic scenes or when she has her own moments of self doubt. Their overall chemistry isn’t totally convincing as things get more complicated but they hold the story together. Both are living in a certain amount of denial so you can predict how things are going to turn out, even if the conclusion is rather shaky.
For a film about finding the value of living it’s got most of the right narrative nuts and bolts. Not all the self realisation scenes work and not all the personal development is convincing. More through lines and less astronomy stock footage would help this all feel more cohesive. But it’s still a light and quirky examination of familiar issues. Damon finds what he’s looking for at the same old beach instead of on the red planet and Pheobe comes back to Earth. There’s just enough personal growth to keep it from breaking apart during re-entry in the final twenty minute stretch. Whether this sort of standard issue opposites attract story is ever a good idea is debatable, but there’s enough charm and heart included to make it worth the trip.