Book, Film, Video Reviews

Film Review: Passage To Mars

By Keith Cowing
May 3, 2016
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Film Review: Passage To Mars
Passage to Mars

“Passage to Mars” is a documentary about a bunch of guys who try to drive across a large frozen stretch of the Northwest Passage. They attempt this feat as an analog for long distance traverses people will one day attempt on Mars.

This film depicts important lessons that are often far more relevant for the actual human exploration of Mars than anything NASA itself is doing right now.

This unprecedented adventure, planned to last a few weeks ended up becoming a three-year epic odyssey of hope, fear and survival. The goal of the expedition was to use a specially-outfitted Humvee named the “Okarian” across 2,000 miles of sea ice. Their ultimate goal: to drive to Haughton Crater on Devon Island – the location of a NASA-funded research base where scientists and engineers learn how to live on and explore Mars.

Update: Passage to Mars will be in theaters on 30 September 2016. The theatrical Opening will be on 30 September in New York at the IFC Center and on 7 October in Los Angeles at Arena Cinema, Hollywood. All locations and dates can be found at: The film will also be on Video on Demand iTunes, Amazon, Gowatchit on 30 September.

The film itself is beautiful. Every frame is an artistic composition. The sound is spot on. Having been to some of the places depicted (or locations nearby) I can say that the awesome, yet austere, beauty of the arctic is perfectly captured. The imagery is often other worldly – and in many cases echoes the views seen from the longer duration Apollo missions to the Moon where small humans and their hardware are seen against a vast, alien landscape. Historic photos and recent imagery from Mars are deftly augmented and animated so as to fit seamlessly into the overall narrative. The interspersed vignettes about Mars, and the personal diary excerpts (narrated by actor Zachry Quinto) really encapsulates the fullest definition of what an adventure and expedition embody. This is what Mark Watney would have seen and written had he really been on Mars.

This film also embodies a broad historic background by invoking the challenges faced by arctic and antarctic explorers in past centuries. In addition, as befits any film that talks about visiting Mars, poignant quotes by H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and Buzz Aldrin are featured throughout. Also presented is a broad historic context as well as what one could call ‘comparative planetology’ wherein Earth and Mars are linked as sister worlds offset in terms of habitability by time – but affected none the less by the same laws of physics.

Before I go further, I must make note of two things. First of all, I have known most of the people in this film for over a decade. My company donated significant resources to the Haughton Mars Project and the Mars Institute and my business partner Marc Boucher and I have both spent multiple long-term stays on the order of a month on Devon Island. The expedition crew of “Passage to Mars” consisted of NASA planetary scientist Pascal Lee, veteran polar explorer John Schutt, Ace rider and mechanic Jesse Weaver, high arctic scout Joe Amarualik, expedition cameraman Mark Carroll, and explorer and filmmaker Jean-Christophe Jeauffre.

In addition to my Devon Island experiences, I have spent time in an expeditionary setting at Everest Base Camp for a month – coincidentally at the exact precise date as the events depicted in the opening of this film. As such, I have seen these remote, cold, dangerous places and the associated hardships up front and personal. That said, harsh as my experiences often were, I experienced the calmer side of what is depicted in this film. This film does not exaggerate the risks that the people in this film took. These conditions are simply brutal and potentially lethal – all day and all night.

For what it is worth, I once wrote a paper about some of the risks of doing dangerous things on Mars for the British Interplanetary Society that gets into some of the nuts and bolts of doing what a lot of people think we’ll need to do on Mars. Newsflash: people get hurt and might well die. If you want a risk-free program of Mars Exploration just send robots.

But let’s get back to the movie. These guys are in a highly modified Humvee with tank-like treads, followed by snowmobiles, attempting to drive 2,000 miles across hazardous arctic terrain and shifting ocean ice to a remote island where no one lives because its a lot like being miserable in a rover on Mars.

Living in these conditions is cramped and uncomfortable. You have no privacy. Everything smells. Someone is always sick. The music that someone else is playing is annoying. In the arctic at this time of year it is never dark. Your bunk is like sleeping on a board. The food can be good but the preparation can be arduous. The hardware always fails and the part you need to fix something that is not supposed to break is not in your luggage. And the material beneath you as you travel/sleep can give way without notice.

Nothing brought that notion home to me more emphatically than living in a tent atop the Khumbu glacier at Everest Base Camp for a month. At times you could hear it move. If you do not visit a nearby place for a few days, you might see a vast fissure where you have stood just days before the next time you visit. And then there were the avalanches that killed people. Ice in all its forms is like that. It is alive. It is deadly. Living atop it is taking a risk 24/7 – just like Mars. Living atop melting and shifting sea ice like this would really freak me out much more than living on a moving glacier.

Ever-present dangers aside, outside the window, as this film aptly depicts, exists an ever-changing sumptuous vista that is a feast for the eyes. Every 30 seconds a National Geographic cover image flashes by. This film captures every image. When you travel in such dangerous but beautiful places you try and drink every little thing in but quickly realize that this is not possible, so you grab whatever brief, singular moments you can, and wrap your mind’s arms around them forever. Just as you do that something breaks or goes wrong and you are distracted.

Yet when you get home weeks or months later and you’re sitting out in your back yard you find yourself suddenly embraced by a flashback to another world. In this film you can see the makings of such flashbacks for the participants. It is these things that drive explorers to go back to these places again and again. No doubt, the explorers of Mars will be similarly motivated.

Why drive a Humvee across portions of the Northwest Passage to a remote island covered with ice and polar desert terrain? Simple: to actually try something risky – while doing science – as an analog for the conditions one might experience doing long distance traverses on Mars where you can’t pick up your cellphone and call for help. Plan as they did, unexpected things happened when hardware and people met up with harsh environmental conditions. Was it exactly like Mars? No. Were there aspects of this effort that approximated – in a real way – the potential life and death risks one might encounter on Mars? Absolutely. Its how the team dealt with these very real challenges that can inform planning for actual missions to Mars.

Until recently, NASA used to do field tests of their Mars rover concept vehicles on lava beds in Arizona. They call it “Desert RATS”. I spent a week there – twice – observing all aspects of these activities. NASA brought a small village of support personnel, half a dozen long shipping containers full of spare parts, with an airport (and access to anything they forgot) and a hospital only an hour away. No one did anything risky. None of the personnel inside the rovers was ever at any more risk than someone would be driving around in a pick-up truck. Probably less. They might as well have stayed in Houston. Was Desert RATS useful? Yes. Does it approximate being on Mars? No.

If NASA is truly going to develop the hardware and the human skills needed to go to Mars then it is projects such as this that they need to start doing – not pretty demos of sexy looking hardware in benign environments near a freeway. Mars is not a movie set. Mars is going to be harder than we imagine. That is the truly memorable aspect of this film: you see people – and the film crew – trying to do something no one has done before – something that resonates with what we want to do on Mars – and they do it in a way that really confronts the risks that must be confronted. Its not all that often that you see something like this depicted on film. And I say this having shot video of lethal avalanches that has been featured in multiple films and TV specials. This is singularly poignant film making and it is very, very real.

For several years NASA has been engaged on a media campaign for its plans to send humans to Mars. Armed with the social media hash tag #JourneyToMars NASA wants you to think that it is thinking about Mars in everything that they do. If that is indeed an honest intention then they should screen “Passage to Mars” for all of the employees involved in its Mars plans. For that matter they should air it on NASA TV.

This film is a preview of the real challenges that lie ahead for the human exploration of Mars and should be required watching for anyone who dares consider the notion of setting sail for another world and then travelling across its untrod expanses.

“Passage to Mars” (USA, 2016, 94 minutes) was produced by Jules Verne Adventures in association with Green Flash Pictures and was directed by French Award-winning Filmmaker Jean-Christophe Jeauffre. The film features narration by Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto and commentary by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. “Passage to Mars” will premiere in Los Angeles, California at Laemmle Theaters from 31 May to 5 June 2016. Screening details, ticket information, and the latest trailer can be found at

Contact Info:
Jules Verne Adventures
Frédéric Dieudonné / Producer
Direct: (213) 864-4322

Editor’s note: see Driving Across The Northwest Passage to Make Polar History, 13 March 2009


Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻