Review: APPROACHING THE UNKNOWN, The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Astronaut

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
Review: APPROACHING THE UNKNOWN, The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Astronaut

Spare and solemn, a new movie throws a solitary man into deep space and wonders what might happen to him.

At first blush, Approaching the Unknown resembles an alternate-version prequel to Duncan Jones' Moon or Ridley Scott's The Martian. It follows astronaut William Stanaforth (Mark Strong) on a one-way mission to Mars, starting with a 270-day solo journey through space. The mission's goal is for Stanaforth to land on Mars and get things started for a new settlement by mankind.

Why is Stanaforth traveling solo? Why was he picked for this particular mission, in view of his sometimes erratic behavior? Why does another astronaut, Emily Maddox (Sanaa Lathan), launch on a similar solo mission a few days later? What are conditions like on Earth in this near-future scenario? Why doesn't anybody from Mission Control, other than the frequently irritated man known as Skinny (Luke Wilson), ever talk to the astronauts?

The film doesn't say. It seems far more interested in other questions, such as: what is the nature of man? What is the purpose of life? How would an individual react to extended solitude, far from Earth? Can you get a good pizza in space?

approaching_the_unknown_300.jpgOK, that last question is not in the movie, which takes a sober-minded approach to the questions that it asks metaphorically. Mark Elijah Rosenberg, who wrote and directed, founded New York's Rooftop Films, a long-running screening series, and has made many short films. Ad Inexplorata, as this feature film was originally known, began life as a multimedia project, described as "an introspective story about one man and his mission seeking the wonders of the universe."

That remains the guiding force for Approaching the Unknown, which often feels more like a meditation on life than a movie about an astronaut. Dramatic incidents are strewn throughout the running time, but they seem intended as time markers rather than conflicts that need to be resolved.

Stanaforth doesn't come across as well-suited for the mission, no matter how much he protests that he is eager to leave life on Earth behind. Yet as embodied by Strong, he's a persuasive, compelling presence on screen. It's not entirely a one-man show, given that the astronaut periodically talks to Skinny and others throughout the journey, though it certainly feels like one. With Strong consistently and effectively conveying his emotions in a soul-baring performance, Approaching the Unknown invites empathy as he wrestles with his personal demons.

The sub-genre of science fiction movies that portray how one person deals with the vast emptiness of space is slender indeed -- I was also reminded of Bruce Dern in Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running (1972) -- but what really distinguishes Approaching the Unknown is the respectful questioning of its lead character, yearning to understand both himself and the mysteries of life.

The film will open in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, June 3. It will also be available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms.

Approaching the Unknown

  • Mark Elijah Rosenberg
  • Mark Elijah Rosenberg
  • Mark Elijah Rosenberg
  • Mark Strong
  • Luke Wilson
  • Sanaa Lathan
  • Anders Danielsen Lie
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Approaching the UnknownLuke WilsonMark Elijah RosenbergMark StrongSanaa LathanAnders Danielsen LieDramaSci-FiThriller

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