Review of Mars Express (2023)

Moving picture, 85 minutes

Seen in 2024.

Seen at GIFF 2024.

Years ago, two comrades in arms lived through a robot uprising. A third came back from the dead. Now, two of them are private detectives looking for a hacker who continues to break Asimovian constraints, apparently out of an ideological conviction that digital life should be free.

I went to the cinema for this movie because it, like The Creator (2023), is an honest attempt at a big-budget SF original, not based on a book, game, previous film or other IP. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised.

Like The Creator, Mars Express is derivative. A lot of its worldbuilding has been commonplace for years in good literary SF, to the point that it’s almost a retro future. It doesn’t have the Buddhist-monk androids of The Creator, but they would not look far out of place here. The basic pattern of its plot is a familiar neo-noir. There are also newer ideas in it, including a Cronenbergian GMO technology, but it’s not really the new ideas that make it great. Instead, like Watchmen (1986), Mars Express is impressive in its composition. It’s a hand-picked set of great ideas, stripped of sentimentality, bundled up tightly, and presented in gorgeous drawings. Unlike Watchmen, it’s hard science fiction, which makes the feat even more impressive.

Mars Express is only the length of Ghost in the Shell (1995), one of the classics of the genre. The later film pays homage to the earlier, most noticeably in a fight sequence. Mars Express does not have the brilliant score or the temps mort of Oshii’s work, nor its subtlety with facial expression, but it does have a similar depth of reflection and emotion, similarly condensed. It’s also similar in realism.

I saw this on the same day as Chicken for Linda (2023). These two French animated features from 2023 are polar opposites in animation style. Mars Express does not have any of the warm and soft vivacity of Linda. Instead, the character designs are all credible, their clean lines drawn in perspective, in the manner of classic Franco-Belgian SF comics or Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998). It’s hard to animate that well, even with 3D CGI. You can clearly see the shortcuts the production had to take to limit the amount of movement. It looks stiff at times, and it’s not just the meditative Buddhist-statue stiffness of Oshii. Even against those odds, director Jérémie Périn pulled it off. There’s only one scene, of too few 3D assets’ worth of androids walking along a road, that doesn’t look quite right.

Périn must have had to fight to make something this intelligent and this dense with such a high level of ambition in every detail, and without the crowd-pleasing nudity of Oshii to help sell it. It’s everything I hoped for from The Creator, but here it’s done right.

moving picture animation fiction cyberpunk