Blu-ray Review: Mars - National Geographic Miniseries

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National Geographic puts forth an interesting hybrid of documentary and scripted drama with its six-part miniseries Mars. Based on the book How We'll Live On Mars by Stephen Petranek and produced by Ron Howard, the apparent intent was to set a new standard for realism on the topic of living on Mars. Anyone looking for something a bit more scholarly than Matt Damon's shenanigans in The Martian would do well to check it out.

The documentary material offers footage of various SpaceX tests as well as vintage clips (such as the Challenger shuttle disaster) along with talking-head interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, source author Petranek, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and many others. Our current understanding of the challenges of manned interplanetary travel is juxtaposed against the staged, future-set drama. Blending fact and fiction proves to be Mars' stumbling block. By the time the miniseries reaches its second half, a more-or-less acceptable narrative rhythm is established. But the whole enterprise is plagued by an annoying stop/start storytelling style.

Maybe if Mars simply stayed focused on the progress made by the crew of the Daedalus, initially led by Commander Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), the characters would've been more developed. The Martian drama peaks with John Light's haunting portrayal of botanist Paul Richardson. Amidst the nuts and bolts of the international crew attempting to keep nuclear reactors up and running, Richardson is slowing losing his mind due to the extreme isolation. A massive dust storm forces the base to run on limited, rationed power. Richardson's plants (which he regards more as sentient companions than mere vegetation) won't receive the light and heat they need. In Richardson's arc, the filmmakers finally hit upon the kind of relatable human drama a story like this needs.

The Blu-ray set (distributed by Fox Home Entertainment) contains a generous selection of bonus materials. "Before Mars" is a 33-minute prequel episode focused on the backstory of Martian base mission commander Hana Seung (Jihae Kim). "Making Mars" (47 minutes) is a highly watchable documentary about the series' production. There are several featurettes that expand on the documentary portions of Mars: "Getting To Mars," "Living on Mars," and "More Mars." A 15-minute "Behind the Scenes" adds more material that didn't fit into "Making Mars. Additionally, 25 minutes of cast and crew interviews are also included.

Despite the so-so documentary/interview footage that interrupts the sci-fi narrative, Mars hooked me. National Geographic has announced a second season. It'll be interesting to see if they exhibit more confidence in their scripted story by backing off on the documentary stuff.
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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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