Let Me Explain the Movie Approaching The Unknown To You
Approaching the Unknown is an unwatchable dirge of a movie that is dying to impress you with it's profundity. IMDB
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Let Me Explain the Movie Approaching The Unknown To You

I love, I love, I LOVE, quiet, introspective movies that consider our place in the world. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt in the Tree of Life? Yes, please. Or Knight of Cups? Oh, yeah. Upstream Color, seconds please! You get the idea. And that is the sort of movie that Approaching the Unknown is. It’s a quiet, unassuming, space exploration film that really should land right in the center of my sweet spot. This was a no look three pointer. This was an obvious thing. It was a done deal. All I needed to do was to finally get around to watching this movie and it’d be immediately vaulted into my top ten films of all time list.

Or not.

So let’s get this out of the way early… I’m not a fan. And I’m all but certain you didn’t (or won’t) like it either. Or maybe, best case was, you didn’t hate it… but holy heck, what was that ending about? What was the point? And let me just say, that it was the meaning, it was the larger point that was the only part that I absolutely adored when I watched it. The WHY of Approaching the Unknown is so good, and so fantastic, I almost see why the film makers made this incomprehensible film. Almost. But if you are unfamiliar with the movie, this post is going to be riddled with spoilers momentarily. If you have not seen it yet, watch this trailer and then decide if it is up your alley. Then, after watching, come back. But only after you’ve seen it… ok? Great, thanks for that.

What your Viewing Experience of Approaching The Unknown was most likely like:

  1. Open Netflix… scan.
  2. Nope, nothing, nope nothing…. awful… no no no.
  3. Oh wait, what is this movie with that bald guy? I’ll give that a shot.
  4. Movie begins playing.
  6. Goes to kitchen, ice cream
  7. Is this a humorless version of Matt Damon’s The Martian?
  8. Back to kitchen, Nilla wafers this time.
  9. Bathroom
  10. How?
  11. For the love of all that’s good and holy… hand me those Nilla Wafers.
  12. Finally, reach the ending CLIMAX!
  13. “Wait what?!?” “No seriously… what was that about?”
  14. Opens the Google, “Someone please explain the movie Approaching the Unknown To me”
  15. Click

Am I right? Ok, maybe I’m off on the Wafers. But I’m betting they are on your next grocery shopping list because, duh. But seriously, I’m doubting there are many that hit that ending and said, Oh, yeah. That’s totally where I thought this was going. Right? AM I RIGHT!? Thought so.


Spoilers for Approaching the Unknown

So, it should be said, that from here on out, I plan to delve into the details of this movie at quite some length. Especially the details surrounding that ending that baffled you so thoroughly. But before we get to the ending let’s make sure we are all on the same page as to what actually happened as this movie unspooled.

Captain Stanaforth (played by Mark Strong, better known for roles as bad guys a movies like Sherlock Holmes, John Carter, Kick Ass and the like) is a bit of an Elon Musk type, who is determined to solve the problems of inhabiting Mars. Which, primarily, is the need for manufacturing water out of nothing. Well, nothing but dirt anyway. And Stanaforth is so determined to pull this engineering feat off that he heads off into the nearest desert with his un-working water distiller/manufacturer determined to either make it work, or die trying.

Which is the first key hint to the ending craziness. So don’t forget that bit.

Once Stanaforth walks out of the desert having successfully generated water from the parched desert floor he convinces the entire Governmental Space Agency that he can single handedly manhandle the bio-systems necessary to keep human life going on Mars. And that is exactly what they do. Rocket number one contains Stanaforth and his water distiller. Rocket number two contains the next set of humans that will join Stanaforth on the planet face once he has the key details working. But it’s all about this one man, triumphing in the face of horrendous odds. Fighting back against the void. Yes?

Approaching the Unknown’s Downward Spiral

What we have here is a violently humanistic perspective. Stanaforth fought and prevailed against all odds in the desert. Stanaforth will fight and prevail against all odds on Mars. But he doesn’t even make it to Mars when he has sabotaged his remaining water with a mistaken back flush. Right? He’s basically back in the desert, against all odds. And it is this man, and his humanistic viewpoint determined to make it work. It is a man saying, I don’t need anyone else, and I definitely don’t need God to do this thing. I don’t want hand outs and I sure as hell am not quitting. Right?

But as we move further and further along on the journey to Mars, things get more and more difficult for Stanaforth. We get word that his fixes on the other spacecraft worked at first, but then failed, and that they had to turn back. His own water converter while working perfectly at first began to go on the fritz. And eventually Stanaforth made the huge mistake that back flushed sludge into his water reserves. And as the journey got further and further every possible thing that could go wrong did go wrong. It was so bad in fact that Stanaforth started capturing humidity in any way that he could, basically giving up on his water conversion solution entirely. approaching-the-unknown-explained-3

Approaching the Unknown’s Ending – WHAT the WHAT?!?

So we know that Stanaforth is in a bad way. We hear from Mission Control that he needs to turn around post haste if he wants to survive (which, am I wrong, did I hear them tell him to “TURN AROUND”? I think that was in there, right? But, that makes ZERO sense from a space travel standpoint. Wouldn’t it be faster to slingshot around Mars to return? That bit completely baffled me. ONE DOES NOT MERELY TURN AROUND IN SPACE!). Stanaforth stops, and considers the universe, and then says this, which is the entire key to the whole of the movie:

“I could die, because life is enormous. I loved the feeling of dying…. The feeling passed … And I made up my mind right there and then. To go on a one-way mission to Mars. This is why I came here. To give everything up. For one moment of pure wonder.”

Stanaforth had almost died in the desert, and yet survived. But in that moment he had a sense of amazement, and overwhemedness, that he couldn’t shake. And so he decided to launch on his pursuit of Mars and more importantly, to launch towards this larger sense of the universe and the world. Stanaforth was a self made man, and yet, that wasn’t enough to help him make sense out of the larger universe and the world. Stanaforth came to Mars in order to give up everything and everyone. He went to Mars in order to get a sense of grandeur and amazement in the universe and in his own personal life. So instead of surviving, Stanaforth chose death on Mars above a mediocre life on Earth.

Which, is a great question… when was the last time you paused and reveled in the amazement of the milky way… the redwoods… your spouse’s lips, eyes, hair? When was the last time you were legitimately blown away by the world? Or do you go about your life completely and totally bored beyond belief? And I think that is the larger point of the movie, and the movie makers. But I actually don’t buy any of that. Want to know what really happened?


Approaching the Unknown Really Explained

There are flaws in this movie that can’t explain that particular ending that the movie showed us. First, since when does NASA send people to space by themselves? Since when do we send humans into space without really having a working understanding of new technologies and capabilities? When does NASA make it a habit of sending critical systems into space without backup equipment in case of the primary’s failure? Why would we ever send an astronaut up into space with a single buckets worth of water?

No. What we were shown in this movie isn’t what actually happened. So yeah, let me explain the movie Approaching the Unknown to you…

Instead, it went more like this. Stanaforth called up NASA and told them that he had their solution to their water on Mars problem. They giggled a bit. And he took umbrage at this because, duh, Stanaforth is a proud individual. So he takes himself, and his unproven water technology out to the desert and determines he is going to make it work there in the sand or he would die trying. Three days later? He’s no closer to getting it working. And it’s at this point that Stanaforth begins hallucinating wildly. He hallucinates the arrival of NASA’s Capcom director, Skinner… who congratulates him on making his water refiner work. He hallucinates his departure to Mars, and his entire trip outbound. He hallucinates all of it.

And there in the desert, with his broken technology in his hands, Stanaforth dies, parched, and alone. And a failure. Roll credits. No? What am I missing here? There is absolutely no other way that you can interpret this movie. I just don’t see it possibly playing out like the movie says it did. Just not possible. What are your thoughts? How do you think the movie played out?

Edited by, CY

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26 Responses

  1. Fred_Flintston

    Agreed. He wanted his invention to work and he had a dream of going to Mars. His machine didn’t work which caused him to pass out and begin hallucination…which is where he dreamed of his Mars flight. The part about letting go was him letting go of himself and approaching the unknown. For him, it was a glimpse at Mars but in reality he had died in the desert.

    Yep, you are right. As an engineer, he had AC system which could have been used to drop lots of condensation out of the air. All he had to do was bubble the ac vent through the contaminated water and it would have evaporated and condensed. He is right. It is a closed system. So the water he had in those tanks could have been recovered. So, in reality….he was just dreaming and being alone was just a journey before his death in the desert. Occam’s Razor.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Yeah, it seems to be the cleanest explanation for this movie – everything post desert seems to spiral a bit out of control. Definitely think it’s an interesting struggle against the world and the universe, but it is ultimately hubristic and an ultimately prideful endeavor. And if you think about the ending – what his real end would be… it would be on a desert planet. Surrounded by red sand. His spacecraft lands, he steps out, and dies in the sand of Mars. Right? Or the sand of the desert on earth. Definitely makes more sense to me anyway.

      • Raj

        That’s lot of money wasted for a hallucination or dream. I think the budget let the movie down, that’s why there were not only scientific but nonsensical errors in the movie. The director was swinging between A space Odyssey and The Martian. He couldn’t chose it until at the end.

  2. James

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the fact he communicates with Houston without any time delay allowances due to the distances involved. But anyway I fast forwarded through this nonsensical low budget video.

  3. Angus

    The whole movie doesn’t make sense. Why sending 2 separate persons in 2 different spacecrafts with a couple of weeks difference? Also, no time delay in COMS; we already found water on Mars, so there is no need for such machine any more. MOST IMPORTANTLY: the ISS has been using the collection of moisture from the environment (astronaut’s sweat), and filtering urine since its beginning to recycle water. So the “trick” he learned from the AC is what they already do every day to sustain life in outer space.

  4. Wayne E. Peters

    The movie was not perfect but it was a refreshing departure from the backstabbing human drama from other recent Sci-Fii’s. Plus the fact that Scii Fii fans are pretty desperate for anything that has any science or space content. I would pay to see it, if only to encourage others to create some new stuff.

  5. Renee Rose

    WHO has all that time to write a long-winded review on a site instead of a normal review on IMDB instead? I skipped most of this and don’t care about the Nilla Wafer jokes or any other attempt at humor. Honestly, you really didn’t “explain” anything. Dude, you have a lot of time on your hands…

  6. Michael Bussiere

    I stopped reading at “this engineering feet”.

  7. Davinder

    Everyone missed the point, what really happened He said he is way of course and going in void of space and said something like only a wonder can change things, that’s when an electromagnetic cloud approaches, he passed through it and went to mars in next scene. Quantum physics says what we think happens, so it happened for him but only when his consciousness started projecting new reality in that electromagnetic cloud.

  8. Chris Peabacon

    Since somebody has already mentioned Occam’s razor, I’m gonna use it to slice right to the point: The events and objects in this film are… ALLEGORICAL. You can take it all literally if you like, up to you. Read it as a hallucination, sure yeah, that’d work; but hang on… isn’t this a work of… fiction? Oh, so it’s all made up and not based on actual events? So could it be that events, object and even characters in this film might, just might, represent something else? Dare I say it, they might actually be metaphors for something! Say it ain’t so!

  9. Clay Textor

    I enjoyed it. Being a critic, I believe you are analyzing it as a critic. – If he returned to Earth, he would always be known as a failure. If he pressed forward to Mars, he would always be known as the first man on Mars. –

  10. Rich

    I think you are on the nail – especially as when the “desert blues” music ends at the close of the film, you hear carrion crows calling – just as they would when thy found a dead body in the desert.

  11. Caspian

    What you have written might make some sense. What happened in the movie doesn’t (dah?). However I enjoyed the movie very much.

  12. psilent knight

    I think you’re right, and two supporting clues are: at 48 minutes when the water comes out pink we see a shot of him in the desert collapsing from the experiment, and secondly in the final scene when he’s walking on mars we can clearly see his bare left leg underneath a rip in his spacesuit.

  13. James

    Conception. Gestation. Birth & Rebirth. The whole film is a metaphorical rumination on self-discovery. The nine-month journey only to discard the water of the womb …. all the symbolism is there. He will be born, he will land on Mars – safety and comfort and familiarity be damned. He’s even wished a Happy Birthday at one point from family on Earth. May I respectfully suggest you watch it again with this symbolism in mind?

  14. Fools

    No matter what, I watched the movie. Not so terrible. I dont give a fuck about coms delay or not, it is a movie… Crappy review.

  15. Ryissa

    It’s a film that lacks adequate tension. Visually some great moments, but eventually you lose interest in caring about what is going on. It may have been written well before the Martian, but it seems like it only made it to screen to capitalize on a suspected block buster coming out. A friend once told me a story that relies on flashbacks is the sign of a weak script. This movie only makes sense because we keep getting hammered by flashbacks to his invention blowing up in desert and injuring him. There’s no character development despite a good acting effort. Why we should care that this guy is doomed is never established. It’s not the worst piece of filmmaking, but it’s far from being notable.

    I side with the camp voting he’s in a delirium due to dehydration in the desert.

    I’m willing to let a lot of stuff that doesn’t work if you think about how real space programs do things and how space ships actually function. I’m willing to suspend disbelief on mad scientist getting to head into space after developing technology. Because simplifying things in that regard is an accepted Hollywood work around. But then the movie keeps piling on the implausible.

    – skinny somehow gets to man mission control and be his base camp buddy.
    – he self frequently corrects his monologue changing “this journey” to “this mission” sort of thing.
    – the ship names Zephyr (west wind, bringer of spring/fruit), Boreas (winter wind, north wind). He even says the line “Fruit from Zephyr” when he docks and talks with space station crew. This is the stuff of daydreams of space, not actual space travel.
    – the mission is named Romulus (hello founder of Rome) … really??
    – his plan “bring it [Mars] to life” which is so Dr Frankenstein. One water reactor is going to awaken Mars. Cue lightning and thunder.
    – His pride is keeping him from making rational decisions. Why the hell did he test it in the desert alone to start with? Because he wanted to create a legend for how he did the impossible. Instead of a systematic approach he goes for broke with untested technology.
    – cut to, hurtling through space constantly fixing same technology once it breaks. For a moment in the desert he could pretend he’d be the hero of a fantastic space opera. But now his real failure is mirrored in a dream of a failing space mission with no chance of rescue.
    – the storm imagery. Egad those are visions borne out of deep space Hubble pictures (I recall before we hit that there is something about Hubble being broadcast in background) when things seem plausible-ish. Pretty sure nothing like that between here and Mars or his off course comment is the understatement of the year.
    – His speeches about solving desert dilemma. How many of us have slogged through some annoying task by pretending we’ve already done it and are being interviewed on TV? His speeches sound like the way you self talk your way through dilemma to keep yourself from giving up.
    – And let’s be clear we never see him solve original desert dilemma The only time we see him walk out of desert triumphant is before both desert reactor and ship reactor keep failing catastrophically. After that he’s trapped in mirrored scenarios.
    – He’s dehydrated severely for how long and he walks like a champ onto the surface of Mars head and beard looking freshly shaven and all aglow? Um, no.
    – he talks about falling and not being able to get back up in desert. Wrapping himself in the sand or some such comment. He also mentions losing feeling in his arm and leg and feeling unworldly. He clearly was screwed and lay there contemplating his dreams.
    – maybe he ultimately gets rescued by his worried friend. Maybe he perishes. Ultimately he’s a guy dying in the desert dreaming of accomplishments well beyond his limited grasp.

    Because I’m perverse I stared till my eyes went dry. I didn’t find a rip in his suit. Something reflects off it for sure. Didn’t hear a prey bird in first or second round of wind effects during credits – only a faint whistle just before sound cuts. Glad I didn’t as that would be too obvious even for this film.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Hey there Ryissa,
      Looks like you’ve taken to the blog. Your voice looks highly familiar to me. But I’ll just continue smiling like a crash test dummy over here, not knowing anything differently.

      Looks like we totally agree on this movie. It’s amazing how much crap I’ve gotten about this write up. People that are unwilling to think about this movie at all, and instead thrash at me instead. So, forgive me for not diving deeply into your response. But yes, your evidence, your points, all align with my larger story that this Mars thing didn’t actually even happen. Can’t have. Just makes zero sense. But alas… welcome (back?) to the blog Ryissa.


  16. Ryissa

    I don’t know if I’m here for a bit or a long while.

    I married a guy who is not the type to waste time contemplating movies so I may have found a place to play. At least I can find some justification for my binge watching habits.

  17. Lefteria Eddy

    String theory…in two strings he dies.
    In one string he lives.
    And in one he never dies.

  18. Marco

    I’ve read all the comments, and the great thing about cinema is storytelling. I can see that almost all of you agreed that he probably died in the desert and tha Mars thing never happened, well that’s great! that means that you understood it, is not about to make sense or not, movies are fictional and allegories to something deeper, and finding those hidden clues just means that it was well directed, the script is awsome, beyond other movies that perhaps seek to enternain, this one tries to reach you somewhere inside.

    This movie perhaps is about a huge faileaure to an even bigger desire, that even approaching the unknow (DEATH), we want to enter it wishing that we acomplished it as our last breath on this planet.

  19. Enrique Barajas

    In exactly the same manner blogs enable independent creators to be read by (small) multitudes, netflix now enable independent filmmakers to reach us, regardless of profit. This movie is an Ode to Failure, or a Prayer to the Murphy´s Law. This very flick can be seen as a failure, or as an approach to the unknown. Final clues: Stanaforth´s space suit is a kid´s space suit, complete with scholar items precisely depicted like a backpack, street shoes, short pants, short sleeve shirt, and a fishbowl. That image brings tears to anyone watching slightly beyond…
    Cuaron´s Roma uses that gimmick.

  20. JohnnyB

    Haha, excellent explanation. Check the rocket when is grounded, it has 6 side boosters, and when it is on flight only 4. Also the space suit on mars does not look like a real space suit, the guy is just using his shoes and white trousers.


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