On solitude, and the psychology of lonely souls in outer space
Approaching the Unknown Paramount Pictures / Vertical Entertainment
Director: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Screenplay: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
Starring: Mark Strong, Sanaa Lathan, Luke Wilson, Anders Danielsen Lie and Charles Baker
Rated R / 1 hour, 30 minutes / 1.78:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
The ability to be alone is a rather specialized skill. Anyone who's ever tried to do it knows that for sure - and how they shake out, one way or another. Just ask astronaut William Stanaforth, who seems not only willing to throw himself into any task alone and exposed, but to actually prefer it. If our professions are meant to be reflections of our personalities, he has indeed found the perfect one. A solo mission to Mars is practically his destiny.
But as strong as this silent type might be, doubts are bound to creep in even for him. There's a lot of time to sit and think during a long commute to a permanent, neighborless home. His fellow astronaut Greenstreet (played by the great Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie), with whom he rendezvouses along the way in a sort of unofficial goodbye to physical human contact, warns him. Says not to go. Says it's not worth it. There's a weariness in his eyes that takes Stanaforth aback, if only for a moment. As if unconsciously thinking, Surely I'll never wind up like him.
Mark Elijah Rosenberg's Approaching the Unknown proceeds to put that theory to the test. As far as scientists on outer-space missions go, Stanaforth (Mark Strong) isn't so very different from his cinematic predecessors. Serious-minded and quiet, he spends his days taking care of small tasks and reporting in on his progress, ducking through the cramped contours of his module, always intensely focused on the work at hand. From time to time he corresponds with a colleague, Captain Maddox (Sanaa Lathan) or checks in with his boss (Luke Wilson) back on the ground. But unlike most other space dramas, this film focuses specifically and intently on personality - not story, not dramatic tension - pondering the type of emotional and psychological makeup it takes to go out and spend months, years, forever alone in a vacuum, or a distant planet. It's an interesting component to a profession we've seen so commonly in film, and something many of us probably think about when we hear real-life news stories about, say, the Mars One volunteers - those willing to leave it all behind - and question who could pull that off. And how, and why. From time to time I've wondered if I would be able to handle it; arrogantly, I've convinced myself I have the emotional constitution to do so. No doubt countless others feel the same. Most of us are wrong.
For Stanaforth, it's not just leaving his life behind but leaving everything - all people, virtually anything recognizable as part of human society - behind. And the film seems to be asking, with a sort of detached curiosity, what type of person would be able to do that. His journey does not involve unexplained supernatural phenomena or extraterrestrial contact or anything of the sort we typically see from this scenario. There's not even an aspirational quality to it - nothing focused on what great accomplishment he's willing to attempt for the future of mankind. No, the film is simply about this man - observing what drives him (to the extent that we can even tell), how he goes about his business, how he handles all that most of humanity would see as borderline existential despair. Which is not to say there aren't crises - there are. But this isn't a disaster movie. And it isn't a horror movie, either. The only scary thing on Stanaforth's mind is the permanence of what he's committed to do, and how far he's going to do it. There's a fine line between solitude and loneliness, and the film rests right along that line.
It's a testament to Strong's sturdy command as an actor that Approaching the Unknown gets as far as it does simply as a quiet character study. The background that led to his expedition adds a curious layer to his psyche. He essentially created the possibility of the mission in the first place - the logistical justification for it, if nothing else - by planting himself in the middle of the desert (alone, of course) without water, forcing himself to put together a makeshift water filtration system. A bit of an extreme strategy, yes, but it worked - and he then used his own innovations to invent a more sophisticated model for his trek into space and, eventually, onto a desert planet. It's not just that solitude is something he chooses or embraces, but that he - and in effect the film - directly associates solitude with survival, one being the necessary condition for the other. Stanaforth isn't one to go on and on about his personal philosophy, but it's safe to say "strength in numbers" is not a part of it.
That's imperative to the film's intended effect. But in narrowing its focus so, it winds up exposing itself. Without much narrative or character dynamics to cushion it, Approaching the Unknown leaves itself entirely alone with its subject - a man, alone, floating in space toward an uncertain future - and there's only so much Strong can do on his own. What this movie needed was a poet; Rosenberg is a casual observer.
Sure, there's poetry in outer space itself, so we get some real beauty when Rosenberg concentrates on what's going on outside Stanaforth's capsule. Then again, it's nearly impossible to not to make the cosmos look glorious; it's never a question of majesty, but degrees of majesty.
By design, this is a sparsely populated film, with a pronounced emphasis on distance of all sorts. The capsule floats patiently in the space between an old life and a new one, between one planet left behind and another unexplored. Inside it is someone on the loneliest mission in the history of mankind. Between the sublime haze of celestial bodies, the peculiarity of this serious and withdrawn personality hovering among them, and the vast emptiness that connects them all together, Approaching the Unknown needed someone who could take those spare details and mold them into something meaningful. Instead, we get a demonstration of loneliness and existential contemplation, rather than an expression of it. The film takes place in the middle of a void, and Rosenberg does little to fill it.