Somewhere along the creative process, somebody thought that Approaching the Unknown was a good title for a film. After all, what’s more evocative or appealing than the dim shimmer of the uncertain? But while the “unknown” in this case—the void of deep space between Earth and Mars—may well lie out of the reach of the real-world NASA, it’s far from uncharted territory in cinema. From its third-hand stir-crazy-in-space premise to the increasingly contrived disasters that befall Captain William D. Stanaforth (Mark Strong), everything about Approaching the Unknown is a known quantity.
Bearing more than a slight resemblance to John Glenn, Stanaforth is a kind of super astronaut. Engineer, captain, and visionary all rolled into one, he volunteers for the first manned mission to Mars that’s only possible thanks to a water purifier he pioneered. However interesting he may sound on paper, his personality exudes the texture of bleached driftwood—that is, so smooth as to be free of all distinction. Strong occasionally grants the leaden material a much-needed charisma boost, but even he can’t elevate Stanaforth’s droning voiceovers, which seem to account for half the film’s running time.
While ostensibly contrived for the purposes of revealing Strong’s character, the script seems more interested in pontificating on the particulars of space travel, as if to pander to the engineers who admired The Martian for its realistic science. And as is standard for sci-fi films, the supporting cast is essentially reducible to their job descriptions and a single adjective: the burned-out space station resident, Greenstreet (Anders Danielsen Lie); an ambitious fellow astronaut, Emily (Sanaa Lathan); and the withering supervisor, “Skinny” (Luke Wilson), over in mission control. Each is given only the barest hint of a personality before being unceremoniously shunted out for the sake of having Strong mount something akin to a one-man show.
Knee-capped by these multitude of flaws, Approaching the Unknown plods along for the better part of its runtime before the expected space catastrophe finally occurs. Once the film finally limps past this goalpost, and the ship’s vital water supply is threatened, Strong finds his stride; as Stanaforth tries to hack together a solution by repurposing pieces of his own ship, the film manages to fathom a much-needed sense of tension. Unfortunately, it fails to lay down the character foundation that might have elevated the third-act histrionics, and the result feels altogether less invested in the plight of Stanaforth than The Martian was in its protagonist’s struggle to escape the Red Planet.
No other part of the film suffers more from this ramshackle foundation than the relationship between Skinny and Stanaforth, largely because Wilson’s magnetic screen presence is wasted, reduced as he is to a flickering video screen that screams out clichés on command. Other space dramas such as Apollo 13 invest much of their storytelling capital into the relationships between mission personnel, knowing that the dramatic weight of the inevitable crises of the second and third acts will rely on the believability of their interactions. Approaching the Unknown vaguely grasps this, but fails to put the early work in. When Stanaforth decides to hide the fact of his impending doom for Skinny, one gets the sense that it’s supposed to feel like a noble deception given for the sake of the mission. Instead, it comes across more as a guilty student hiding his unfinished homework from his teacher.