Somewhere between Red Planet and Adult Swim's Tom Goes to the Mayor lies Mars, the animated sci-fi love story from writer-director Geoff Marslett. Sometimes you can only judge a film by its own ambitions, and Mars is strangely unambitious. I say "strangely" because its unique visual style (like colorful rotoscoped photocopies) seems to promise something more than it delivers. The truth is that Marslett just wants to tell a funny, funky love story on a small scale.
Three astronauts are sent on a haphazard manned mission to Mars, in a photo-op attempt to beat a rival space program's robot to the surface. Brownsville (indie darling Mark Duplass), Cook (Zoe Simpson), and Morrison (Paul Gordon) are unlikely post-Generation X astronauts, biding their time on their trek to Mars by yakking away with a detached sarcasm that borders on precious. It's mumblecore in space, and If that sounds like your thing, then Mars can be a rewarding experience.
Like Geoff Marslett, I call Austin, Texas home and there's a trace of Austin's unique brand of forward-thinking hippie ideals here -- a mash-up of politics, psychedelia, and love for the fellow man, grounded by a keen awareness of the current technological reality. As if to spotlight its Austin roots, Kinky Friedman even appears in the film as the president of the United States. Maybe its homegrown nature keeps me from being too harshly critical of it. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with any complaints leveled at the film, but I just can't bring myself to dislike it.
If you were to tell me Mars is too talky, that nothing really happens, that it's too hip for its own good, that the love story between Brownsville and Cook isn't satisfying -- I can agree with all of that. But Mars looks neat. I like its underground comic book vibe. It's an all-around weird approach to the material, and for that, I give Marslett credit. I've seen films where the overall project failed while some individual scenes stood out; I can't remember one where the film somehow succeeds through a collection of limp moments. Mars works in spite of itself.
Marslett's little movie looks like nothing you've ever seen, but tells a story that barely feels worth telling. Mars will find its audience because it's too unique to be ignored, but it's not really aiming for the stars. It feels like part tech demo, part actor improvisation exercise, all wrapped up in the trappings of a heavy science-fiction tale (trappings that don't pay off in any real way). It's the kind of movie I'd recommend as a must-see, because even if you don't like it, you'll remember it. If you do like it, then you've got yourself a new animated sci-fi cult fave.