Sound doesn't travel in the void of space, but it can wake the dead in an IMAX theater. When director George Butler's documentary "Roving Mars" gets around to shooting a rover-topped rocket at the red planet, even the soundest sleepers could be startled awake. The sad thing is, even for NASA/space fans, a snooze isn't out of the question despite the film's scant 40-minute running time.
Don't get me wrong, "Mars" is beautiful. It blends animated and actual footage almost seamlessly, often raising doubts as to whether what's on screen is a real picture from a Mars rover or something created on computer chips bound to our little blue marble. Mars looks great. The spaceship launch is explosive (just when you think it's in cruise mode another rocket stage lights off … BANG!). And at times Mission Control looks a bit like a sit-in at Berkeley. (The buzzcut era is so over, dude.)
Most of the story is told by NASA scientists from the rover program, which sometimes makes it seem more like an episode of PBS' "NOVA" than a movie. In fact, that may be why the story seemed so familiar: last-minute parachute problems, an inflated-ball-bundled capsule bouncing around on the Mars surface and the geological background info for what NASA was hoping to find. If you follow the news, you probably know just about everything that shows up here.
There's a bad attempt to give the rovers character. Opportunity is characterized as "Little Miss Perfect" for landing practically atop geological evidence of liquid water, while sibling Spirit is the "Blue Collar Rover," which must travel about 161/2 miles (they were designed to travel just a few hundred yards) to do the same. And let's not forget a hokey attempt at a tearful finish. (Skip to the next paragraph if you want the ending to be a surprise.) There's talk of how Martian dust covering the solar panels means that one day the poor little rovers just won't wake up, as one of them gazes with its electronic eyes at a Martian sunset and dips its camera-filled head … sniff.
Tom Hanks' IMAX effort, "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D," created a "Fly Me to the Moon" exhiliration. "Roving Mars" left me with feet firmly on the ground.
Directed by George Butler; written by Butler and Robert Andrus; cinematography by T.C. Christensen; edited by Nancy Baker; music by Philip Glass; produced by Frank Marshall and Butler. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday at the Navy Pier IMAX Theatre, 600 E. Grand Ave. Running time: 0:40. MPAA rating: G.