Disney's "Roving Mars" on Blu-ray couldn't have come out at a better time. Mars is in the news again, and interest in the Red Planet is still high. This weekend's Mars lander will carry the first electronic library to leave for future explorers. But what can easily become lost amid all the hype is the fact that the library, as a list, reinforces the role that the imagination has played in space exploration. Included alongside Carl Sagan and the reports of 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli are contributions from a different sort of space explorer: fiction writers like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, and Kim Stanley Robinson.
"Roving Mars" is also a marriage of the scientific and the creative. A making-of feature reinforces how reluctant (terrified?) scientists were to have a film crew enter their pristine robot assembly room, where a single speck of dust among the workers in their white suits, booties, masks, and gloves, can thwart an entire mission. That nervousness continued until scientists from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology saw a special preview of the first clips shot by documentary filmmaker George Butler ("Pumping Iron" and "The Endurance"). At that point, they were assured that a partnership could benefit the mission by helping them share with the general public what they hoped would be a breathtaking first: actual photographs of Mars taken by two robotic land rovers that were also equipped to drill into rock and help scientists determine whether life-sustaining water at one point existed.
And so we get, in "Roving Mars," a combination of actual still photographs taken by robots named Spirit and Opportunity alongside equally stunning CGI recreations based on actual flight data. For their efforts, filmmakers won the 2007 Visual Effects Society Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project. You can tell it's CGI in several scenes, but in others you'd swear that the visual look between the actual photos and the computer-generated sequences was seamless. In a sense, though, this is one case where "you had to be there." The result isn't as breathtaking as you might expect, unless you have more than a casual interest in space exploration and robotics. The script won't win any awards for suspense, and outside of a scene where the Mars Exploration Rovers Launch Team has an Apollo 13 moment while awaiting the first transmission to confirm that the robot had landed and that everything was all right, it's all pretty low-key.
This documentary begins with the developmental stage, and we're shown plenty of footage of people at their computers and tinkering with the robots, which look a little like a combination dune buggy/funny car. Except, of course, dune buggies and funny cars aren't equipped with solar panels, drills, microscopes, powerful transmitters, and computer-programmed "personalities" that can be adjusted to create different levels of risk-taking.
Following the launch, everything in space is CGI except for those still photos. But I have to say that shots of the rocket at various stages was so convincing that I at first wondered how they got the footage. Same with shots that show the little rovers chugging along on the barren surface of Mars. Except for a couple of close-up scenes where you can see the artificiality of the figure against the background, it looks like the real deal.
Maybe because this was an IMAX film, using IMAX film for part of it (but not the robotic photos or interviews), the emphasis is on audio-visuals rather than offering much in the way of technical information. I got the feeling that the Launch Team and filmmakers didn't trust the public to understand anything but the basics, and a part of me resented that. I'd LIKE the chance to feel dumb and inadequate. But give me more scientific, detailed explanations to try to process. We're told that Spirit struggles for five months to climb a mile and a half to get to explorable terrain, but I wish the cameras would have lingered a little longer to give us a sense of what "struggles" really meant. Same with a quick and almost dismissive sentence that tells us how the two robots survived two Martian winters. But then you think of some of the coolest shots--like real photographs of rocks, close-up, that are still sitting on Mars--and you can't fault this film too much, especially when the CGI re-enactments show us the fantastic landing bounce-for-bounce, based on actual flight data.
"Roving Mars" looks stunning in 1080p Blu-ray, but some may find it annoying to have the aspect ratio constantly shift from 1.78:1 to a letterboxed 1.33:1. Interviews were shot at a different aspect ratio, and those insertions can feel slightly disruptive. But the clarity? The color? The detail? The black levels? Everything is pleasing to the eye--an embarrassment of riches, to double up on the clichés.
With MPEG-2 compression, audio options are uncompressed Dolby Digital 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) or standard Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, French, or Spanish, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. The sound isn't quite as dynamic as the picture-a conclusion I reached because I didn't find myself paying as much attention to the Philip Glass soundtrack as I did to the music in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
I have to tell you that I heartily enjoyed a one-hour 1957 "Disneyland" episode on "Mars and Beyond," hosted by Walt himself. Remember the Professor Ludwig von Drake lessons? This show is an animated history of man's take on the universe, with a few gags thrown in to help hold youngsters' attention. But it's fun and fascinating for the whole family, and strangely enough it isn't just a blast from the past. "Mars and Beyond" still has relevance today, and that makes it all the more entertaining. More standard is an interview sequence on "Mars: Past, Present & Future" that tells the story of this film through the eyes of the Launch Team and filmmakers. The "past" turns out to be what interested each of them in space exploration in general, and Mars more specifically, while the present was how the launch and film came together, and the future speculation. Included in this bonus feature are classroom shots of students from the Imagine Mars program.
At 40 minutes, "Roving Mars" has got to be one of the shortest films available in HD, but for astral-afficionados (who already know that Mars and Earth are the same approximate age--some 4.5 billion years old) it's probably a must-own. It's visually impressive, but it's not as exciting as you'd expect. Still, because of these two robot rovers, scientists were able to confirm that Mars did indeed have water, and probably sustained life billions of years ago. That bodes well for implications of life elsewhere in the universe, we're told. And "Roving Mars" offers visual proof.