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(2006) (Documentary) (G)

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Documentary: A look at the work of NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists and technicians as they attempt to land and operate two exploratory robots on the surface of Mars.
Documentary filmmaker George Butler follows the scientists and technicians of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as they set out to design, manufacture and deploy two robotic rovers for Mars where they hope to use them to find signs that surface water once existed on the planet.
OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
It's intrigued mankind for eons, is named for the Roman god of war, and has spawned all sorts of fiction about humans traveling there as well as its "inhabitants" arriving here, usually on less than friendly terms. In reality, NASA has been sending spacecraft by and to the Red Planet for decades, but such exploration was rather limited, especially when compared to what's seen in the movies.

That somewhat changed in 2003 when the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were deployed to land on the fourth rock from the sun in early 2004. Their story is told in the latest IMAX film, "Roving Mars." Initial narrator Paul Newman briefly comments on the quest to discover the origins of life and that perhaps Mars -- which has long been speculated to have once supported surface water -- might yield some informative answers.

And so the 40-minute film begins, following NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists and technicians discussing their theories, the building and testing of the twin space explorers and their spacecraft transport, the launch and flight, and finally the landing and exploration of our closet planetary sibling.

As in most such space missions, intricate planning and testing are the order of the day, and one official equates this latest 300 million mile, seven-month journey to shooting a basketball from Los Angeles to New York and not only making the basket, but also hitting nothing but net.

It's fascinating stuff, including the fold-out design of the spacecraft and rovers (labeled as origami by one person involved in the project), the parachute design and testing (for hitting the Martian atmosphere at plus Mach 2), and the clever design of the rovers themselves (with their multi-tasking mechanical arms, camera arrays and independent, six-wheel suspension system).

The 40-minute format doesn't allow for too much in the way of in-depth exploration of any one topic, but the cursory explanations and depictions are good enough to get the point across without getting too technical for kids and laypeople.

Of course, the big attraction is going to be the footage from Mars. But since most IMAX cameras are nearly as big as the rovers themselves, the engineers couldn't find room for them on the interplanetary trip. Accordingly, the only "real" IMAX footage is that taken on Earth, while the Mars scenes -- beyond very brief views of the real, still images taken there -- have been recreated via computer imagery based on the real thing. The same holds true for the impressive and bass-rattling lift-off and landing scenes that are fun to watch, but chew up a lot of precious time.

Director George Butler keeps things moving at a good clip and composer Phillip Glass' score creates the right sense of awe and wonder for the material. It would have been nice, however, had the filmmakers including Earthlings' obsession with the Red Planet (from time immemorial to recent), much like "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon" did for our lunar partner.

There's also little in the way of a scientific depiction of the planet (age, size, features, etc.) beyond the geologically-based rock obsession directly related to this mission (in its search for evidence of past surface water), or in past explorations such as that conducted by the Viking and Pathfinder missions in 1976 and 1997 respectively.

Of course, that's just some nitpicking on my part in my personal desire for something more substantive. For a cursory and abbreviated look at such matters, you could do worse than this fast-moving and fairly entertaining offering that should please most kids and adults. But don't expect a lot more than a Sunday drive across the Martian countryside after kicking the wheels on the family rover. "Roving Mars" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 24, 2006 / Posted January 27, 2006

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