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Roving Mars DVD Review

Roving Mars (2006) movie poster Roving Mars

Theatrical Release Date: January 27, 2006 / Running Time: 40 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: George Butler

Tagline: The Ultimate Adventure - Journey to the Surface of the Red Planet.

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Between worldwide theme parks, multiple television channels, and one of the most recognized brand names ever, you'd think it'd be impossible for the Walt Disney Company to release a new movie under its namesake banner and have it completely miss the radar of public awareness. Roving Mars is proof otherwise,
but its extremely low profile is the result of deliberately limited distribution given to this niche market film, not uninterested audiences rendering thousands of theaters empty.

Released to 27 cinemas in January 2006, Mars became the latest entry to Disney's young class of IMAX documentaries, which includes Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. Whereas those films carried the clout of blockbuster director James Cameron (whose renowned sci-fi works were alluded to in the titles), Roving Mars has the backing of Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor and aerospace manufacturer that partially funded the film. Mars also boasts the participation of Frank Marshall, who with Steven Spielberg has produced the Back to the Future and Indiana Jones movies (among many other hits) and on his own helmed Disney's 2006 snow dog sleeper Eight Below. Serving as writer, producer, and director is George Butler, no stranger to small documentaries, having previously made Schwarzenegger bodybuilding classic Pumping Iron, the quickly forgotten John Kerry biopic Going Upriver, and, for IMAX, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure.

Running briskly at the IMAX standard of 40 minutes, Roving Mars covers the recent NASA exploration mission that saw two robotic rovers traveling to the surface of the Red Planet. The film attempts, with some success, to establish the expandable vehicles as characters: the original is called Spirit; the younger, more advanced rover is Opportunity. The two embark on a 7-month journey where the odds are against them; NASA has an imperfect track record on Mars missions, the tiny window of opportunity crunches preparation time, and the slightest anomaly could derail one or both of the rovers and, with them, the entire expensive project. Once the rovers land, they're to serve as geologist-documentarians, photographing and examining our neighboring planet's terrain.

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory test and perfect one of the two Mars rovers. He ain't James Cameron, but Steven Squyres, the mission's principal investigator and the author of "Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet", emerges as the most colorful personality in the film.

Like many IMAX films, Roving Mars suffers in transitioning from a screen that's 70 feet wide to one that is about two feet wide. On a standard TV, the movie's imagery seems less than special. It isn't likely to have been too impressive on the big big screen either, aside from the most exciting footage, which is merely computer animation, albeit detailed, accurate renderings of the rovers on Mars. Scenes of scientists at work may be moderately interesting, but don't exactly clamor for viewing at a height of 50 feet. The loss in cinematic power is more evident in the types of visuals (split-screen shots that allowed focus choices now merely seem gimmicky) and in the runtime, where the movie is shy of even just an hour-long commercial television program and lacks the sensory overload to explain it.

Regardless of the exhibition dimensions, Roving Mars feels more like a report justifying NASA spending or promoting the government agency's latest efforts than a feature film. Sure, it manages to trump up slight drama in scenes where the scientists anxiously await confirmation of the rovers' surface landings.
And it does supply some answers to a layperson's queries of "What's NASA been up to since the moon landings?" and "Just where does that $17 billion NASA spends annually go?" But, the movie's revelations are fairly minor. The question, as David Bowie posed it 36 years ago, "Is there life on Mars?" is met with a "We don't know, but there appear to have once been the conditions for it." And the aspect that's essential to IMAX movies -- the visual -- is rather lacking on account of having to merely recreate what's happening afar.

While it's presented in nothing but common terms, Roving Mars doesn't supply the average viewer with more than about a minute of intelligent discussion for their investment. Still, even those sixty seconds seem to matter. Films like this which shed light on complex worlds that are utterly foreign to most on Earth feel like they deserve to exist, even if they fail to dazzle with a gripping, consistent, self-contained experience. Those for whom space travel is a strong interest, or a study in science class, are the people most likely to have caught the film in its long, limited large-format release. Based on their level of involvement, I imagine that this will play to them either as simplified old news or as something which sparks excitement beyond spectatorship.

The Spirit lands on Mars and prepares to start exploring in this accurate three-dimensional computer-animated rendition. NASA scientists anxiously await news of the first rover's landing on Mars.

It's too soon to say for sure, but it looks like Disney's faith in the IMAX format may be fading just as quickly as it formed. No new large-format releases have come since Roving Mars and none are on the horizon. Just a few years ago, the studio debuted the appealing Fantasia 2000 in IMAX and it later exhibited 45-minute narrative The Young Black Stallion exclusively there. Around the same time, Disney touched up and re-released Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King on the big, big screen. They abandoned plans to put other beloved animated features into IMAX theaters and now it seems like they may be abandoning IMAX altogether. While it's long been known that there's much more money to be made in standard theaters, where it took Dead Man's Chest just two days to outgross every IMAX film ever, perhaps Disney is declaring the miniscule profits of the class trip market not worth the effort in today's franchise-oriented times.

Buy Roving Mars on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen and 1.33:1 Fullscreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: July 31, 2007
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc

VIDEO and AUDIO

The skimpy runtime of Roving Mars treats it to a luxury rarely afforded live-action Disney films; its disc contains both 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 fullscreen presentations. The option is especially preferred on IMAX films, which have a native aspect ratio of 1.43:1.
It's not entirely clear if that's how Mars was shot, but the film works fine in both DVD ratios. The widescreen version adds about a little bit of width over the fullscreen, while losing about the same amount of height; and vice versa. The minor differences represent less than 15% of the picture and therefore playback boils down to viewer preference and screen dimensions.

In terms of quality, there are no obvious imperfections to be found among the pristine, wonderfully detailed visuals. Critical and high-end viewers will notice some slight edge enhancement, but should otherwise be satisfied. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is somewhat serene at first, but it delivers some jolting bursts of life during the Mars sequences, pushing the subwoofer and engulfing you with atmosphere even in space where technically, there should be no sound. A definite highlight of the sound mix is Philip Glass' compelling, haunting score.

George Butler, who must be one of the most soft-spoken directors working today, discusses his work on the film in "Mars: Past, Present & Future." Imaginative, fun animation from Ward Kimball is the best part of "Mars and Beyond", the 50-year-old Disneyland episode that's included. Simple but effective, the animated main menu makes good use of visual effects and Philip Glass' score.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The featurette "Mars: Past, Present & Future" (24:45) is a perfect companion to the movie. In interview footage, the filmmakers and the scientists depicted discuss their attraction to this project, Mars' treatment in science fiction, the challenges faced in production, the uncertainty of the mission, and the nature of the movie's visuals. We also hear briefly from students in NASA's "Imagine Mars" program. This piece is essential post-feature viewing for those hoping to have light shed on what they just saw.

Exceeding the feature in length (and charm), the second and final bonus is "Mars and Beyond" (52:45), a complete December 1957 episode of Walt Disney's weekly anthology series, then titled "Disneyland." It's introduced by Walt and the robot Garco and moves onto its best sequences,
good-natured animation which reflects on how the solar system (and Mars, in particular) has been perceived over time, from ancient philosophers to novelists to present-day sci-fi. The episode proceeds to document what is currently known about the Red Planet and how a hypothetical voyage there would go down. The latter portions of this Ward Kimball-directed program get a little dry, but on the whole, this 50-year-old show is fine vintage edutainment and an appropriate inclusion. It also boasts a sufficient restoration, appearing as it does on the out-of-print set Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland, sans Leonard Maltin intro.

The disc opens with trailers for Underdog and Meet the Robinsons, plus the nearly-year-old Disney Blu-ray promo that predominantly showcases movies that aren't now available nor scheduled for release on that high-def format. All three are also available from the Sneak Peeks menu, while Roving's trailer is expectedly but lamely nowhere to be found.

The not overly busy Main Menu is quite cool; devoting the top half of the screen to a montage of scenes from the movie and the bottom to the clean, easy-to-read menu options. All submenus are static but also feature the same excerpt of score, which differs from the Main Menu's aural selection. Inside the normal black keepcase are a single-sided insert (that lists the ten chapter titles and synopsizes the two bonuses) and a double-sided sheet that promotes the Disney Movie Rewards program and provides 100 points for it.

"Roving Mars" asserts that children of today (like those getting a close look at the rover here) will be the ones who get to actually tread on Mars. They were expected to last three months. Four months later, the Martian rovers just can't stop roving Mars!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Those with enough interest in NASA, the solar system, and our closest planetary neighbor should get something out of a rental of Roving Mars. Unlike most IMAX films, that "something" isn't a visual feast or grand, focused documentary. It's just a look at a space mission with relatively tiny findings that could have widespread repercussions in understanding Mars. Both the movie and the technically-sound DVD are far too slight to justify a purchase, especially at the initial list price. Though certainly not without some merit, this is definitely not a disc that those who aren't scientists or at least science geeks would return to regularly.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / Buy on Blu-ray Disc

Disney IMAX Films: Aliens of the Deep Ghosts of the Abyss Sacred Planet The Young Black Stallion
Produced by Frank Marshall: Who Framed Roger Rabbit Eight Below Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Space in Science Fiction: The Black Hole 2001: A Space Odyssey First Spaceship on Venus (MST3K)
Featuring Paul Newman (Roving Mars' Introductory Narrator): The Hustler: Collector's Edition Cars The Verdict: Collector's Edition
New to DVD: Voyagers! The Complete Series The Last Mimzy Red Dawn: Collector's Edition
Films Re-Released in IMAX: Beauty and the Beast The Lion King

Documentaries:
In the Shadow of the Moon Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland Walt: The Man Behind the Myth
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan
Walt Disney's Legacy Collection: True-Life Adventures, Volume 1 America's Heart & Soul

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Reviewed July 20, 2007.