'The Mars Generation' offers an unapologetic, if one-sided, argument for the red planet
Posted February 1
"THE MARS GENERATION" — 3 stars — directed by Michael Barnett; not rated, probable a PG for adult themes; Sundance Film Festival
“The Mars Generation,” a new documentary featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is an informed history of American space exploration, a criticism of recent policy and a hopeful showcase of future explorers.
Director Michael Barnett’s film intercuts the history of American space exploration with footage from the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where a group of aspiring youngsters is hoping to be among the first to set foot on Mars. They are part of a simulation program designed to prepare them for Martian conditions and the kinds of routines and challenges they will deal with as future astronauts.
While various teens share their enthusiasm for outer space — and insist that “nerdy is the new cool” — scientific pop culture figures such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) share observations on America’s history of space exploration and discuss the prospect of sending a manned mission to Mars.
The historical element of the documentary, which begins with a critical examination of rocket pioneer and ex-Nazi collaborator Wernher von Braun, moves through the heyday of the 1960s Space Race with the Soviet Union and culminates with the triumphant 1969 moon landing.
But after this celebration, Barnett takes a different tone as “The Mars Generation” breaks down the downturn in space activity starting under the Nixon administration. Barnett and his sources insist that the 40-year era of the space shuttle — dogged by the Challenger and Columbia tragedies — was an example of the United States settling for an easily attainable Earth-focused space program rather than looking to worlds beyond.
“The Mars Generation” does highlight NASA’s unmanned efforts at deeper space exploration, including the initial Viking mission to Mars in 1976 and more recent efforts such as the Curiosity rover. But in general, “The Mars Generation” acts under the assumption that there is no downside to a quest for the Red Planet, only acknowledging the obstacle of extreme cost. One interesting passage explains the fundamental problem of building nonreusable rockets and showcases Elon Musk’s efforts to design a reusable candidate.
The focus on privatized space exploration also underscores some mild criticism of recent U.S. policy toward NASA funding, and interviewees seem especially bitter that after all that happened during the Space Race, U.S. astronauts essentially have to purchase seats on Russian spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station.
There is a sobering political thread that periodically breaks the surface of the film. An audio clip from former President Barack Obama insists that recent funding cutbacks and the end of the space shuttle era are essential steps toward next-phase advancements in space exploration. But Barnett casts a shadow on this hope when he segues to a clip of President Donald Trump flippantly brushing off the idea of a Mars mission, insisting that he’s more interested in rebuilding American infrastructure.
The mild political content has a way of undermining the purity of the film's intentions, and Barnett’s film feels more like a one-sided advocacy piece for exploring Mars rather than an in-depth debate of the idea's pros and cons. But, at a distance, “The Mars Generation” still does a good job of tapping into the inherent hope of exploring outer space and providing a realistic examination of what it will require.
“The Mars Generation” is not rated, but would have a probable a PG rating for adult themes; running time: 97 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.