The wave of remarkable new television continues – unexpectedly – with Nat Geo’s 6 part miniseries “Mars.” The series, which also runs on FX, tells the story of our first manned mission to Mars in 2033.
The fact that the series sidesteps the usual hokeyness of the future sci-fi genre is already impressive, but what really breaks new ground is the WAY these filmmakers did it. Blending fact with fiction is never an easy trick. FORREST GUMP pulled it off (mixing archival footage with live action) and there have been others less successful. But MARS blends present day NASA & Space-X documentary footage with live action sequences so seamless and convincingly – it’s almost like a new form of television.
One minute we are watching Elon Musk lay out the mission and risk factors of his Mars mission (circa 2016) and the next we are watching those risks realized with terrifying consequence, seventeen years later. And it works!
Created by documentary filmmakers Ben Young Mason & Justin Wilkes, with what looks like considerable help from Hollywood uber producers Ron Howard & Brian Grazer (Imagine Entertainment) the series achieves a level of credibility and high emotional stakes that the purely fictional worlds of “The Martian” or “Apollo 13” could never manage.
How you ask? By freely intercutting the two timelines (2016) and (2033), we get very real, very recognizable people from the NASA community building the emotional stakes for the fictional crew. I know. Doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. There’s a real life sequence between astronaut Michael Kelly (the first man to spend a year in orbit) connecting with his teenage daughter via Skype. And the kid is amazing. The footage is 100% authentic. 100% loaded with emotion and longing and loss. It sets the stage perfectly for the fictional Hanna and Joon Seung, twin sisters of the 2033 mission – one of whom leaves almost certainly to die. Or so it seems.
Thus far, only two of the six episodes have been made available, but if they are able to sustain this mix of old and new, authentic and fictional filmmaking – it will be a real first. And a testament to the ongoing adventure, not just of man chasing stars, but of storytellers chasing a whole new road of exploration.
Especially to cable television, which has enjoyed its finest years ever, beginning by my count, when HBO debuted The Sopranos, and rolled out the welcome mat for writers who were sick of being second-guessed by network executives and focus groups.
In the years since that auspicious pilot, I count an ever more promising pool of talent, producing series of compelling drama and profoundly complex characters. Among my personal favorites have been BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, THE KILLING, RAY DONOVAN, MR. ROBOT, HOMELAND, MASTERS OF SEX, TRUE DETECTIVE (season one) and PENNY DREADFUL. What these series share is an unbelievably nuanced view of humanity. And a clear conviction that producers need no longer dumb-down their characters and story lines to find an audience. Complexity is celebrated. The ambiguity of the human heart is at last getting full reign to run where it will – into some pretty dark realms it turns out – but this is what happens when creativity has been so long suppressed. It flees into the underworld, that true realm of our psyche, from which monsters emerge. Dark, glorious, surprising monsters of the id. The Walter Whites and Don Drapers; the Vanessa Ives and Mr. Robots of the world, let loose upon the landscape of television.
Truthfully, the world of motion pictures looks pale and reed-thin by comparison. Week after week, the Friday openings offers little more than a sad rehash of overdeveloped franchises. It seems only the kids’ movies dare to launch a new character. If it isn’t a Marvel or DC Comics hero, they’re not interested. Whole genres have fallen out of production, adult dramas (except for the one month pre-Oscar qualifiers); suspense, thrillers, even romantic comedies are few and far between. As if date-night were a quaint idea of the past.
As lamentable as these trends may be, they are easy to understand if you look at the economics. P&A costs for a major release now adds such a burden for a picture to perform on opening weekend, that only international blockbusters can hope to win their frame. To combat international piracy, we have moved to day-and-date releases across large parts of the global market – a challenge for all but the biggest drawing super heroes. Horror seems to be the only other genre with enough box office grip to justify its cost of production. But let’s face it, the real reason that so few movie genres have survived is job security.
Studio executives are scared to death of green lighting a flop. A $200 million flop is career ending decision. So you do everything in your power, selecting from a smaller and smaller pool of guaranteed franchises, to pick your bet. Nobody will ever get fired for green lighting another X-Men. And that’s the long and short of things. Decisions being made by executives in fear for their jobs.
Sadly, anything truly original entails risk. And any business model that demands returns on opening weekend – is no longer in a position to take on these risks. And so, the exodus continues. OUT of motion picture into television. We go where we can work. We go where we can do our BEST work.
And I have gone from looking forward to the latest round of Friday releases, to marveling when one of them actually slips through the barbed wire, and puts something great on screen. Sadly, this isn’t often. Which makes the triumph all the greater when it happens.