'Roving Mars' Seizes An Opportunity With Spirit

The Imax film of the mission wisely trains its lens behind the scenes as well as into space.
The Imax film of the mission wisely trains its lens behind the scenes as well as into space. (Buena Vista Pictures)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

Do NASA stories make your eyes glaze over? Does space make you space out? Then "Roving Mars" is just for you. A dazzling, deeply engrossing account of the 2003 Mars Rover mission that sent two intrepid wheeled robots to the Red Planet, "Roving Mars" is that rare film that will appeal equally to space nuts and non-nuts alike. At 40 minutes, this briskly moving, visually stunning Imax movie takes viewers on a journey that is every bit as breathtaking on Earth as it is in outer space; what's more, it conveys not just the scientific facts but the profound human emotion of that journey, with exemplary grace and intelligence.

A caveat: Although the title "Roving Mars" indicates one of those first-person, you-are-there films concocted of images taken from the Mars Rovers, the movie doesn't introduce those pictures until relatively late, which turns out to be a very good thing. Director George Butler instead decided to follow the Mars Rover mission from its beginnings several years ago, when a team of 4,000 scientists began to conceptualize and build two machines that would travel hundreds of millions of miles and send back geological findings as to whether there was ever water -- and therefore potential life -- on Mars. Most of "Roving Mars" centers on the mission's leader, a Cornell geologist named Steve Squyres, an appealing and charismatic leading man whose gift for metaphor (he compares geologists to detectives solving a crime, wherein "the clues are in the rocks") gives otherwise arcane factoids compelling, accessible life.

The first half-hour of "Roving Mars" is taken up with getting the two Rovers -- named Spirit and Opportunity -- up and running, as squads of engineers hammer out design issues and technical flaws in a Kennedy Space Center lab, a gleaming white-and-gold shrine to scientific inquiry whose gilded elegance is worthy of Louis XIV, or at least Carmela Soprano. It's here that Spirit and Opportunity -- who quickly become anthropomorphized by their creators -- take their first tentative steps out of their exquisitely constructed solar-panel carapaces. Watching as these extraordinary creatures are put through their paces is to be reminded that, at its core, the greatest art is a result of solving technical problems.

Spirit and Opportunity finally get their big days, in June and July of 2003, respectively, and at that point "Roving Mars" takes the audience inside the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, where Squyres and his team wait apprehensively for signs that their babies have made the seven-month trip safe and sound. When Opportunity hits its target with particular accuracy, Squyres compares it to "hitting a 300-million-mile interplanetary hole in one." Although "Roving Mars" is clearly building up to seeing what the Rovers finally capture on their eyelike cameras, the centerpiece of the film turns out to be the rocket launch of Spirit, which Butler reconstructs through spectacular computer animation and a magnificent extended solo of sound editing that goes from a solar plexus-rattling rumble to the awesome silence of deep space.

Much like the Mars Rover mission itself, the "Roving Mars" production seems to have gotten everything right, beginning with Butler himself. The veteran director of such classics as "Pumping Iron" and "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure," Butler can always be counted on to bring feeling and insight to his projects. With "Roving Mars," he succeeds, with economy and skill, in transforming what could be a jumble of hinges and gears into nothing less than the vehicles of our best hopes and dreams. In its stirring final sequences, in which those fantastic images of lake beds and lava plains taken by the Rovers play across the screen, "Roving Mars" conveys an equal sense of triumph and wonder. It's a 40-minute cinematic hole-in-one.

Roving Mars (40 minutes, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) is rated G.

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