The word ‘awesome’ used to mean jaw-on-floor and full of awe. It’s a definition that’s on the move, last seen passing the ‘hmm, yes, that’s rather good’ mark and creeping towards an ‘OK, thanks’ retirement home for decrepit adjectives.
We’d like to pull it out of retirement for one last mission – to describe the twin Nasa rovers, still rolling across Mars, and this awesome (yes, we said it) documentary, which finally uses the Imax medium in a non-cheesy way.
Spirit and Opportunity have now been on the Martian surface for almost three and a half Earth years. That’s fourteen times their shelf life. They’ve covered 11 miles, climbing mountains and dipping into craters. They show few signs of stopping any time soon.
The 40 minute film covers the background to the missions plus lift-off, landing and first year or so of operations. The launch sequence, although mostly computer generated, is frighteningly real. The giant screen and close perspective take you right up to the Delta II as it climbs from the Florida coast. But it’s the sound system that most impresses. The rumbles and blasts vibrate in the chest as the various rocket stages ignite and separate. The landing is also spectacular. There was a definite gasp from the audience as the giant airbags inflated, bringing the landers to a bounce-and-roll stop on the Martian plains.
The footage and animation are interspersed with shots of the control room. A den of anxiety, with scientists, engineers and planners mopping brows and chewing nails. Careers hinge on a ludicrously complicated series of events all happening flawlessly without human interference. Principal Investigator Steve Squyres looks like he’s going to retch.
It all went perfectly, of course, and the rovers continue to send back impressive data and imagery. The later stages of the film showcase some of the dusty panoramas and early results. And this is where the movie is a victim of the rovers’ success. Since the piece was made a year and a half ago (and showing to US audiences for some time), the six-wheeled geologists have sent back even grander vistas from the mountains of Gusev and the craters of Meridiani.
Roving Mars, unusually for an Imax film, is a story well-told and well-paced. Eye-candy and technical detail are perfectly balanced to make this informative as well as visually impressive. Anyone jaded with space exploration will enter the auditorium thinking ‘OK, thanks’ and leave shouting ‘Awesome’.
Roving Mars opens at the BFI Imax on 4 May. (May the Fourth be with you.)