Passage to Mars is an old school documentary, the kind that used to play kid’s matinees at the theaters or turned up on The Learning Channel before it turned into a cesspool of reality shows.
The film chronicles a NASA mission across 2000 miles of Arctic ice to the NASA station on Devon Island. The purpose, to simulate the conditions on Mars and test out the HMP Okarian Martian Rover Humvee, a prototype vehicle for use with an eventual manned mission to the red planet. And the isolated section of polar ice is as close as it gets on Earth to the terrain, and the isolation of Mars. The story is told with footage shot by director Jean-Christophe Jeauffre and passages from mission leader Pascal Lee’s diaries read by Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto. This causes the occasional disconnect, as we hear Lee talk in much of the footage and hearing his words in someone else’s voice sometimes seconds later is jarring.
The film is beautifully shot and is stunning to look at. But it suffers from a lack of tension or suspense because no matter what breaks on the Rover, (and plenty does go wrong) they are just a radio call and an air drop of new parts from safety. There’s none of the sense of danger in older expedition films where help was days away with no GPS to pinpoint your location, mechanical failure is reduced to an inconvenience rather than a dire emergency. This isn’t to say that the film is dull, it does a great job of making the trip and what they do to overcome the obstacles they encounter interesting. It’s also a good look at people under stress, watching the tensions among the team members build and get defused as the trip drags on to almost twice it’s original duration.
The Arctic footage is frequently contrasted with simulations of Mars, putting what they’re doing into context. Oddly though it doesn’t make mention of how all these breakdowns would be a much bigger issue on Mars, or how this kind of stress testing finds flaws in the design or build. But this aside Passage to Mars is an interesting film for documentary fans, NASA nerds or those looking for something different.