What Disney does better than anyone else out there, and has for fifty years, is take real-life science and fill it with all the wonder that the people involved feel for it. ROVING MARS is a prime example. This 40-minute documentary about exploring the red planet for signs of life, past or present, with the Mars Rover robots is told by the scientists tasked with the job and there is no one better when it comes to engaging minds young and old with their infectious enthusiasm. Originally presented as an IMAX feature, it translates remarkably well to the small screen. That would be because the story of getting there is just as compelling as that strange martian landscape with the pink-tinted sky. And make no mistake, the amazing shots of the red planet with which this DVD are packed, are nothing short of breathtaking
Those scientists have a way with words that belies the dry sort of number crunching that makes up the bulk of their work. The Principle Science Investigator Steve Squyers is a prime example. When he describes the arm on the Rover that will collect soil samples for testing on the Rover’s internal labs, he doesn’t just explain the design, he actually acts it out, curling and extending his arm in a dead-on impersonation of the robotic action. It’s hardly a surprise, when he talks about the two identical Rovers being sent to Mars, he talks about their distinct personalities, the troublesome older sibling, and the compliant younger one. And while that’s cute, it’s also insight into how this scientific mind works, and by extension, how all the other scientific minds on this project work. It’s imagination that drives everything, the sort of imagination that can liken sending the two Rovers to a specific landing spot on Mars to shooting a basketball from Los Angeles to a hoop in New York and having not only make the basket, but clear the rim as well.
There is also an amazing resiliency. The odds are long, two-thirds of all Mars missions fail, but the lure of discovering if life ever existed there, or if it might still be there, is palpable in these people. A parachute failure during a test run in the desert isn’t disheartening so much as it is a chance to get back in the wind tunnel and try again.
The facts and figures of building robots and getting them to Mars are spelled out, but it’s musings such as Sguyers’ as he looks at one of the Rovers before launch and thinks that once it’s launched, no human eyes will ever look directly at it again that stick with the audience. These aren’t just scientists, they are poets.
The DVD includes a mini-doc with those scientists, as well as the filmmakers, reminiscing on the place of Mars in particular, and space exploration in general, in their lives. Producer Frank Marshall recalls the magic of watching Sputnik fly overhead when he was a kid. Director George Butler talks about coming up with the idea to send IMAX cameras to Mars and how he made that dream come true. For fun, there’s MARS AND BEYOND, a 1957 documentary narrated in stentorian tones by Orson Welles. Introduced by Walt himself and his robot pal, Darko, using whimsical animation at least as imaginative as the subject matter at hand, it begins with a brief history of astronomy, including fire-breathing constellations wreaking havoc on a hapless early farmer, and moves to the various speculations over the centuries about life on other planets, particularly Mars. There is something irresistible about the precision some early science-fiction authors gave to their flights of fancy about denizens of other worlds. The people on Jupiter, for example, fear the enormous horses that live there according to one from the 18th century. Finally, the hard science of the day gets a more serious, highly refined and detailed Disney animation treatment as a billions of years are condensed into a sequence that starts with the formation of the solar system and then goes on to speculate how a less fanciful form of life might have taken hold on Mars.
ROVING MARS is a mind-expanding experience on every level. Mixing state-of-the-art animation and actual pictures from the Martian surface, from getting the Rovers launched, to the first rock they cracked on the surface of Mars, to the weird and wonderful things they found, this is a gripping mystery, adventure, and science lesson rolled into one.