SXSW Review: Mars

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The animated feature debut of Austin filmmaker Geoff Marslett, Mars, is a refreshing antidote to the dark and provocative films that usually crowd out the less dramatic films.

Mars is the story of has-been astronaut Charlie Brownsville (Mark Duplass), whose fame is in decline but still valuable enough to be included in the crew of the first manned mission to the red planet.  Literally there as a backup and PR frontman, Brownsville is merely a talking head while Casey Cook (Zoe Simpson) and Captain Hank Morrison (Paul Gordon) do the real work, trying to beat the second unmanned mission to Mars to find out the fate of the first.

On the surface, Mars looks like science fiction, but in reality, it's a lighthearted love story. Brownsville may be a showman with his bedazzled and Western-yoked suit, but despite his bravado, he actually does have a valuable speciality. Cook, like any intelligent woman, has little patience for a wastrel, but eventually realizes there's more to Brownsville. 

While the film is visually interesting, Marslett also cast well. He lucked out with Duplass and Simpson, who have a playful chemistry on screen unhindered by the animation.  Musician Howe Gelb, who did the score, was also the sardonically Machiavellian mission controller Shep. Kinky Friedman has an extended cameo as the President of the United States. Gordon, a master droll straight man, is also the star and director of The Happy Poet, and ESA Command David Jones is played by Dance with the One director Michael Dolan. 

The animation does incorporate elements of rotoscope but it's more than that. The grainy contrast harkens back to old-school comics and the simple stories of old-time movies. This myopic occasionally amused herself by looking over her glasses to see how the animation looked out of focus: it was gorgeous and very lifelike. Yes, the animation is based on live action, but it still looked cool, especially with in-jokes built into the scene backgrounds. As a former techie, the BSOD (blue screen of death) screens were hilarious.

Where Mars stumbles is the extended credits. While entertaining and interspersed with relevant scenes, it takes two minutes to get to the final philosophical proclamation.nTwo minutes is a long time to sit through credits, although the end result does suit the film, even if the end speech also goes on a bit too long.

Mars, on the surface, is a confection, but that doesn't mean everything is simplistic. Unlike the average Hollywood romp, it's not just mugging for the camera. There is a lot of subtle humor not everyone would get, like the blue screens at mission control, or the President (Friedman) flippantly commenting on his electability.  Local techies will probably find more in the film than most but it's not enough to detract from the film. 

Forget the "mumblecore in space" labels -- Mars actually has a plot.  However light, the mission is merely a device to allow two people to fall in love, and it was fun to go along for the ride.