We Are Not Alone

Comin' at ya! The adventures of 'Mars' across the third dimension
Twist Films/Science Museum of Minnesota

Mars 3D
Directed by Barry Kim

Looking for signs of life on "the Death Planet" can seem like a cosmic joke. The neverland stretching between Earth and Mars has seized 20 of the 36 spacecrafts that have been launched in the past four decades, sending them spiraling into infinite nothingness. Those probes that somehow manage to reach the red planet after spinning through 300 million miles of darkness still have to survive the "six minutes of terror"--a moment of impact when the Martian surface may destroy a lifetime of work. Knowing this, many space cowboys find it difficult to accept that some of NASA's $400-million rovers will explode before they even leave the Earth's stratosphere, never getting the chance to make a crash landing.

If you want to be an astro-scientist, you've got to be a profound optimist.

Gazing up at the vast sky above him, Steven Squyres looks like he fits the part. In IMAX's 20-minute short Mars 3-D, the Cornell University astronomy professor watches from the launch site as Spirit, one of the two rovers he helped to create, prepares for its voyage to Mars. As Squyres's wife and daughter look on, he fixes his eyes on his baby. "Come on, darlin'," he says to the rover. You can almost hear the whole country saying it with him: Come on.

"I think saying goodbye was emotional for him," says Mars executive producer Melissa Butts of Squyres's June 2003 parting with Spirit. Butts, whose introduction to the flask and beaker life came as production manager of the locally produced PBS science show Newton's Apple, developed an affection for Squyres's darlins while following the mission at the Kennedy Space Center. "Scientists become attached to the rovers. Soon they're referring to them as 'her' and 'she.' It's like they have personalities and lives of their own."

With their craning necks and ducklike bodies, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity wobble around the lab like curious toddlers investigating their surroundings. Of course, as soon as they land safely on Mars, we're reminded that these toddlers weigh 400 pounds each and can explore nearly as much territory in one day as their predecessor, Sojourner, covered in three months. Equipped with microscopes, spectrometers, drills, and eight cameras, these robotic geologists collect samples and photographs from Mars, helping to map out provinces that few non-scientists--save sci-fi movie buffs and acid-tripping college students--claim to have seen.

On the big screen for the first time, alternating between high-definition 2D and 3D, the rovers' footage zooms in on bluish mineral deposits, thirsty craters, and rust-colored surfaces etched in snaking, veinlike patterns that are scribbled across the planet like a written history. You can see the ghost of Mars hovering somewhere between the panoramic shots of cracked ground and jagged, burnt-orange peaks--images that could have been culled from Gerry, Gus Van Sant's existential ode to the American desert. At times, the Death Valley-like landscape in Mars seems to obscure the one essential difference in the way we compare our planet to its closest neighbors. On earth, water that has turned to dust makes the desert into a graveyard. On Mars, a watery grave that once existed could be proof of life.

"In a way, we're demystifying Mars," says Butts, who works for the Minneapolis-based production company Twist. "You're used to seeing animation and B movies of Mars, and then you actually see these images projected in 3D and there are no little green men running around. It's almost like you're standing there. You can stand in a desert with an incredibly mountainous region behind it and it looks like the desert on earth. That surprised me.

"Mars and Earth are roughly the same age," Butts points out. "There's this theory now that because Mars and Earth have been exchanging material for a while now, life on Earth may have formed from Mars."

She pauses for a moment, considering what this means. "That would make us all Martians," she says.

As the impact of that statement hits you, let your six minutes of terror begin.

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