When you consider the odds against success, the achievements on glorious display in Roving Mars
are almost miraculous. This excellent IMAX production follows the familiar IMAX format; at 40 minutes in length, it's not as wide-ranging as other documentaries might be, but in chronicling the design, launch, and successful landings of NASA's robotic Mars rovers Spirit
, it offers an unprecedented level of visual splendor, highlighted by amazingly accurate computer-animated depictions of what really happened when the rovers arrived at their destination. Financed by Disney, and combining the talents of veteran IMAX director George Butler and top-ranking Hollywood producer Frank Marshall (best known for his frequent collaborations with Steven Spielberg), this celebration of science and technology begins with a raspy introduction narrated by Paul Newman (who had recently voiced the character of "Doc" in Disney/Pixar's Cars
), then dives right into the formidable challenge of launching and landing the rovers on time and budget, with a looming deadline of optimal Mars/Earth orbital alignment occurring only once every 26 months.
At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, we see highly skilled engineers addressing every challenge and every possible contingency, and project leader Steve Squyers serves as our informative host and enthusiastic populist for space exploration. After launching in June and July of 2003, the rovers traveled for seven months and 300 million miles to Mars, landing on the red planet in January 2004. Every aspect of the mission is covered in concise detail, and tension escalates as touch-down (achieved with the now-familiar "bouncing balloon" landing system) draws near. What's most remarkable, even to the crew at JPL, is that Spirit and Opportunity succeeded far beyond their mission expectations, becoming one of NASA's most triumphant achievements in interplanetary exploration. The photos, chemical analyses, and other data gathered on Mars were intended to prove the past existence of water on Mars (and hence the possibility of life), and in this and many other respects, Roving Mars stands as a breathtaking tribute to the men, women, and robots who've given us a greater understanding of the planetary system we call home. --Jeff Shannon
On the DVD
Roving Mars is presented in both full-screen and widescreen formats, and is accompanied by two excellent bonus features. First up is "Mars: Past, Present, and Future," a 25-minute "making of" featurette that provides additional educational detail about our closest planetary neighbor, along with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with key personnel at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Then comes the 50-minute featurette "Mars and Beyond," originally broadcast in 1957 as an episode of Walt Disney's popular Disneyland TV show. Typical of that series, it's a wildly imaginative, cleverly animated look at Mars and its significance in the history of mankind. Even after more than half a century, it's filled with scientific and speculative details that are sure to engage anyone's sense of wonder. --Jeff Shannon