There's nothing quite like an IMAX movie. Presented on screens that can be as tall as eight stories high, the format is shot and projected using an adapted version of 70mm film, which is capable of presenting images at a resolution comparable to about 10000 x 7000 pixels. The result is an all-encompassing experience that's been used to great effect over the years with various original IMAX documentaries that explore the world and the heavens at an awe-inspiring scale.
One of the most recent such IMAX features to hit theaters, 'Roving Mars' is an account of "Spirit" and "Opportunity" -- two robots originally sent to Mars in 2004 to explore whether the planet ever had water. Featuring never-before-seen footage from the much-publicized mission, the documentary follows this modern-day R2 and 3PO through their construction, landing, and accomplishments on the surface of Mars. Along the way, it also introduces the JPL Rover Team as they struggle to find a way to safely drop the robots on the planet's surface.
Like most in its brethren, 'Roving Mars' certainly boasts some stunning photography, but narratively unfortunately I found this one somewhat lacking -- especially compared to other IMAX features.
First off, the film's 40 minute runtime (the standard length for IMAX features), is really too short to do its subject matter justice. With so much to cover in so little time, the camera never seems to stay in one place long enough to gain any momentum or real insight into the efforts behind the exploration. As a result, more often than not, the film tends to state the obvious and then move on without allowing its audience to really understand what's at stake in each stage of the robots' mission.
But for me, the most bothersome element of the documentary is that it chooses to make the robots seem human. While this tactic is clearly meant to help draw viewer in, the filmmakers fail to effectively imbue the robots with characteristics or qualities that would make them feel legitimately alive. As a result, the gimmick's seams are that much more evident, which reduces the film's effectiveness.
Having said all that, IMAX documentaries are generally intended to be family fare, and if you have kids in the house, they're not likely to be disappointed by this one. My own three year old was entranced by the imagery and the strange machines, asking questions both during and long after the film has ended. If nothing else, as an educational tool for young minds, this is a definitely a nice conversation starter.
All in all, 'Roving Mars' may not have had enough content to satisfy my own curiosities and questions, but it's an often beautiful film, and seems likely to fascinate other kids as it did my own.
'Roving Mars' is presented in 1080p with the AVC MPEG-4 codec and looks suitably decent considering the hodge-podge of source elements it has to work with. The mix of footage comes from HD filming, 70mm cameras, handheld camcorders, and other sources that don't always lend themselves to a consistent visual experience.
To be sure, this presentation has its high points that deliver above average images -- especially for a documentary. Unfortunately, however, those looking to immerse themselves in the beauty of IMAX will have to squint their eyes and overlook quite a few issues -- the film is like a patchwork quilt and the image quality is in constant flux. On the plus side, colors are natural and scenes that include launch footage or CG renderings are sharp and vibrant. On the opposite side of the coin, the footage from Mars is plagued by lens distortion, video noise and som softness. These on-screen hiccups are definitely the product of the on-board cameras as opposed to the Blu-ray transfer, but ugly moments like these still detract from the positive aspects of the picture.
As far as the transfer itself is concerned, there are repeated instances of halos, edge enhancement, and color banding. While these problems are never entirely distracting, unfortunately they're often present in scenes that would otherwise be stunning.
Again, overall the picture is quite decent considering the source materials. Just don't let the IMAX moniker mislead you into believing that this one's particularly demo-worthy.
The audio is definitely the most satisfying element of this release and adds plenty of oomph to key scenes. Featuring both a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix (640 kbps) and a far superior uncompressed PCM 5.1 track (16-Bit/48kHz/4.6 Mbps), the rumble in the subwoofer during the shuttle launch is both exciting and impressive -- I just didn't expect it to keep getting louder. The dynamics on the PCM mix are top notch and will not only turn heads in the room, but will bring people from other parts of your house into your home theater to see what's going on.
Alas, all is not perfect. While the dynamics rock the room, they can't mask the track's average channel pans and treble wavering in quieter moments throughout the presentation. Additionally, as was the case with the video, the quality of the natural audio from scene-to-scene again varies with the source material. While this isn't a fault of the sound mix per se, it is mildly distracting. Still, documentary fans will be familiar with this sort of audible disjointedness and are likely to shrug their shoulders at such concerns. Turn it up!
This Blu-ray edition of 'Roving Mars' includes both of the main supplements from the concurrently released standard-def release.
First up is a classic Disney television special that first aired in 1957, called "Mars and Beyond" (52 minutes). It was fun to ber reminded of how foreign space travel once was, although ultimately the notalgia only goes so far. At nearly an hour long, this supplement is longer than the feature itself, and it feels it.
"Mars: Past, Present, and Future" (26 minutes), on the other hand, is a fascinating look at the engineers who designed the Rover, the filmmakers, and the students from a related study program. A lot of the content included here could have easily been edited into the feature itself, and the film would've been stronger for it. Fans of 'Roving Mars' will really enjoy this supplement.
(Note that "Mars and Beyond" is presented in 480i/p only, but "Mars: Past, Present and Future" is happily presented in full high definition.)
Although you might expect an original IMAX feature to be the perfect eye candy for your high-def home theater, I was disappointed with this presentation of 'Roving Mars.' The video is a mixed bag, the supplements are anemic, and the film itself seems hampered by the standard 40 minute runtime for IMAX features. On the bright side, the audio is boisterous and definitely worthy of its high-def moniker, but all things considered my best advice is to give this one a spin at the rental aisle before deciding for yourself whether it's worth a purchase.