Photo: IFC Films
World Without Sun, Jacques Cousteau’s classic portrait of life in a submarine lab with half a dozen paperback-reading, chain-smoking Frenchmen, ends with a scene in which Cousteau’s saucer-shaped submersible briefly surfaces in an air pocket in an undersea cavern. It’s a strange and inspiring coda, but also blatantly staged (though so is almost everything in World Without Sun) and could never pass muster in our age of interchangeable educational nature documentaries. But lest one think that Cousteau’s light-on-facts approach was easier (“As soon as you are specific, the poetry disappears,” he said at that film’s premiere), there are bad imitations to prove otherwise. If nothing else, Jean-Christophe Jeauffre’s insipid Passage To Mars instills a greater appreciation for the classic movies that clearly inspired it.
Admittedly, Cousteau and other nature documentary pioneers like Jean Painlevé and Hans Hass had it a little easier, because they were all stoking an ancient fascination with the sea and everything that lies beneath its surface. Jeauffre, who describes himself as “a keen naturalist and adventurer” in the third person and heads an events and production company called Jules Verne Adventures, has picked a less universal subject: an attempt (or two attempts, actually) to drive a modified Humvee across the ice of the Canadian Arctic to Devon Island as a part of the Haughton Mars Project, which carries out studies and experiments to prepare for the future when humanity finally gets around to going to Mars.
The most obvious problem is that, based on what’s shown here, the record-setting drive seemed to prove nothing except the importance of carrying spare parts and the fact that vehicles designed for desert combat aren’t that great in the cold. But that hasn’t stopped Jeauffre and co-writer and Haughton Mars Project director Pascal Lee from punctuating every moment of Passage To Mars with overreaching narration, read by Zachary Quinto from Lee’s point of view, which is as confusing as it sounds, given that the real Lee is perpetually on camera as the leader of the expeditions. It ranges from comically self-aggrandizing (“I’m not Shackleton, but he inspired us all”) to purple (“We’ve been staring up at this distant, reddish orb since the dawn of humanity”), tossing out quotes from sci-fi authors and struggling to paint the six-man crew as a colorful bunch. (“The Inuit are born explorers,” intones Quinto’s voice-over about team member Joe Amarualik after more or less admitting that the guy didn’t really like being filmed.)
Straining hard for profundity while offering very little to look at aside from more shots of the perpetually disabled Humvee (dubbed the HMP Okarian, after one of the races on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars), Passage turns into an parody of the kind of specious, naively romanticized documentary filmmaking that Cousteau was sometimes accused of perpetuating. In one typical moment, much is made of the team briefly sighting a polar bear, with the incessantly pensive voice-over declaring, “Somehow this beautiful ghostly encounter brings us luck,” over a shaky long-lens shot of the animal scampering away, its dirty ursid ass to the camera. It appears that neither Jeauffre nor cameraman Mark Carroll (who filmed the first expedition alone) had the foresight to accompany the team when anything actually happened, as everything from the rescue of an injured team member to Amarualik’s days-long trek to get more spare parts happens off-screen. Instead of these incidents, there’s Steffen Schmidt’s cut-rate grandiose score accompanying interminable CGI imaginings of the Martian surface and redundant animated maps.
Aside from a noticeable improvement in cinematography on the second Okarian expedition, Jeauffre’s paean to the spirit of exploration is extravagantly amateurish: randomly inserted faux-VHS effects, explanatory title cards that type in with a click-click-click across the screen, that corny boilerplate prose. (Some other choice samples: “Houston, we have a problem!”; “Do Humvees dream of diesel sheep?”; “You know that saying about how failure isn’t an option? In fact, failure is always an option!”) It furnishes its own counter-narrative. Unable to develop any of the team members as personalities or to evoke the supposed otherworldliness of its arctic setting, it becomes a testament to the fact that a sense of wonder doesn’t mean jack without the talent or art needed to express it.