Approaching the Unknown (2016)

I am watching netflix, as you do, and started watching Approaching the Unknown (2016).

As the review on IMDB says, nothing much happens, which is disappointing, but the plot falls to bits in so many ways technically it is just strange. It is almost worth watching for a laugh at the writers, if you are really bored or want to waste some bandwidth (!).

The entire premise of the film is that someone has invented a device (a "reactor") that can break down Martian "soil" to extract elemental hydrogen and oxygen so as to make water. I have not actually checked if Martian soil contains hydrogen and oxygen, but putting that aside, that is the premise of the movie. The idea being that manned Mars missions would need water, and this cracks that problem. As he explains in the film, sending lots of water to Mars is not practical. Interesting premise for a story, so a good start.

But right from the start it gets weird. He says that nobody believed he could do it (get water from dirt). OK, fair enough, so any sane person creates an experiment that shows it works, and someone else duplicates it, and the technology is proved and understood - simples. Obviously it would help to demonstrate using something identical to martian soil. But no! What he does it takes his "reactor" (which is small enough to carry) by foot in to the (Earth) desert to demonstrate he can survive off water from his "reactor". WTF? Why? That is not using Martian soil, and is in an environment where you can make a condenser to get water if you want. This is not about "can he survive?", it is about "does the damn machine work?" which you can (and should) demonstrate in a lab.

Anyway, after this rather odd demonstration technique, he gets the mission to Mars. Again, WTF? Why would the inventor of such a gadget be anything to do with a Mars mission or remotely ideal as the person to be on such a mission? It is technology, and (presumably) now well understood technology which can just be pre-shipped to Mars with all of the other resources ready for colonists to arrive.

So, now, he is on this mission to Mars, 270 days long, and, one manned? Again WTF? Like anyone in their right mind would have a one man mission in space, or anywhere for such a long mission? Heck, just driving to Scotland, my daughter and partner took turns driving, and that just took all day.

Interestingly he comments on the gravity from rotation and how his feet feel heavy and is head feels light, something I mentioned in another blog post, so that sounds plausible. Nice touch.

The comms to Earth are rather odd. They have the image and audio breaking up in messy ways, but magically have zero latency in conversations. In practice we can send really good quality signals using lots of error correction (we get lovely pictures from Saturn!), so the actual quality should be spot on (or not at all if interference is that bad) and there should be significant latency later on in the mission.

There is some bullshit with some gyro issue on the mission that is following him, where he basically says turn it off and on again and everyone is amazed it all started working and how clever he is.

But anyway, he is on this mission to Mars. He has (a bigger versions of) his "reactor" in the ship, not stored nicely in packaging cases, but set up in the ship in the middle, for some reason. It transpires this is his water supply for the mission. Now this is really odd - why the hell would he take dirt with him to convert to water - the dirt has to weigh more than the water anyway so why not just send water, but all of this ignores the big fact that a space craft is a closed system and water is all recycled - that is what they do on the ISS. All water, wherever it goes and however it comes out of him, ends up back as potable water, even if it goes via the air conditioning to get there. So water is not actually an issue on such a mission and no way he would need to use his "reactor" in the first place. What is even crazier is that, when he breaks his reactor messing with cables, he actually realises this is a closed system and tries to get some condensation using a plastic sheet (rather than just getting from the air conditioning). Somehow this process kills his plants! Has he been flushing his pee in to space all this time or something?

He manages to find some sort of hobo clothing and grow a beard then seems to fly in to some sort of nebula (between Earth and Mars), magically loses all rotational momentum and hence gravity, and well, at this point I have kind of stopped watching, it is that bad. ... Oh, he gets there, wanders around a bit and thinks he is immortal now?!?

Yes, sci-fi is about some degree of suspension of disbelief, but when the whole plot is this full of wholes in "normal" science that is not meant to be magically different for the story line, what is the point? The real killer is when he says the ship is a closed system and tries to get water from condensation - he has just poked a huge great whole in the plot of the whole film right there!


  1. Thanks for the warning - I'll stay well clear of this one!

  2. Try watching the Martian, humans have made it to Mars but can't even think to tie a guide rope between a spaceship and a base.


  3. Ouch. Some major dolts working on scripts these days. Can't be bothered to do learning, facts, science or logic, that would make head hurt and be boring.

  4. It seems that for the writers it was all a case of “approaching the unknown” - i.e. physics and chemistry. Who understands this stuff anyway?


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