When I read the plot synopsis for this film, Approaching the Unknown, I got incredibly excited for what had the potential to be a riveting sci-fi film and wondered why it hadn’t been received a wider cinema release. I then watched the movie and quickly realized its small budget wasn’t the only reason it didn’t make a big noise on the circuit. Essentially what sounded like an exciting underlying story, is sadly not told with much excitement at all.
Approaching the Unknown follows the story of Captain Eilliam Stanaforth (Mark Strong), a brilliant scientist that is on this way to be the first person on Mars. As a scientist he invented an ingenious method of creating water which he hopes to use to colonize the red planet. The problem is he is making this journey on his own and along the way experiences some troubles that cause him to question himself, the mission and purpose. It’s a concept that might sound similar to The Martian, but the two films couldn’t be further apart. Whereas The Martian was filled with regular tension, excitement and even humour and told a grand epic story, Approaching the Unknown is much more somber in tone. It is also much smaller in scale with 95% of the film being about Stanaforth in his small space module.
And that is largely where the film’s troubles lies. Where someone like Matt Damon could anchor a film because of his strong charisma and screen presence, Mark Strong, despite all of his talents, just does not possess the same screen presence to captivate you for a full 90 minutes. His portrayal of Stanaforth is largely melancholic and pretty tepid. When you’re watching one man for the majority of a movie, you need to see an exceptional range of emotions to make it worthwhile, as we saw with Tom Hanks in Cast Away. We just don’t get it here, sadly. While you may sympathise with the internal struggles of the character, you wish there could be something more captivating to grab your attention. There is a minor role by Luke Wilson who plays a friend and NASA engineer Stanaforth regularly speaks to, but these interactions fail to bring any more enthusiasm to the story.
Though to be fair, Strong can’t be blamed for the film’s faults entirely. In the end, the film written and directed by Mark Elijan Rosenberg, is simply a little too ambitious in what it hopes to achieve. The script is very philosophical in nature and relies on a lot of voice overs to tell us what the character is thinking rather than giving us an event or action that might allow Strong to show us what he is thinking and feeling instead. The film also lacks action on screen and the tension filled scenes that exist are too few and far between leaving it largely driven by scenes that can be best described as tedious.
It’s sad as Approaching the Unknown really has potential in its ideas and had me really interested for the first 30 minutes before it started to meander to nowhere, much like the lead character’s journey in space. It does feature some inventive direction through its use of camera angles that prevent you from feeling too claustrophobic in the film’s small set though. Rosenberg seems more interested in convincing you of the philosophical thoughts the character is going through than building a captivating story, which is evident in some of the slow pacing.
You get the feeling that if they improved the pacing and perhaps explored more of the character’s past or gave him more to interact with, the film would’ve end up a much more enjoyable watch. There are also some glaring problems with Stanaforth himself who sometimes comes off as a little too reckless, undercutting the character that is initially built up as methodical and thorough at the start. It makes the film feel inconsistent.
So is Approaching the Unknown a bad movie? Perhaps not, but it is a hard watch because it just feels so slow and tiring, leaving you feeling bored. Really, really bored. Even the soundtrack and score do nothing to make you feel any different. If you love a movie with some deep, philosophical thinking or perhaps need to cure some insomnia, this could be the movie for you. But if you want to be entertained, approach with caution.