Review: MARS EXPRESS Is A Welcome Addition To The Science-Fiction Neo-Noir Genre

Mars Express
Image via GKids.
In French animation director Jeremie Perin’s debut film Mars Express, we are taken to the future of the year 2200. There, AI-driven robots have taken over much of the day-to-day work, leaving most of the humans on Earth unemployed and in poverty. Meanwhile, the rich have mostly congregated on Mars where they live in relative luxury. Aline Ruby is a private detective on Mars who is hired, alongside her android partner which houses the memories of her former military buddy Carlos who was killed in action, to investigate the disappearance of a college student who was working on cutting edge new cybernetic programming. But as their investigation deepens they slowly uncover a larger conspiracy that could spell danger to humans and robots alike.

Perin, who co-wrote the Mars Express screenplay with Laurent Sarfati, draws on a long line of science-fiction stories for inspiration here, from writer Isaac Asimov’s foundational “Robot” short stories to films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to Masamune Shirow’s manga (and subsequent anime feature film adaptation) Ghost In The Shell. Perrin counts on his audiences’ knowledge of what has come before and never has any scene that grinds to a halt to drop a load of exposition on the audience. What world-building there is – and there’s a lot of it – comes through visual details, contextual clues and background actions that will reveal their importance later.

As the two detectives make their way through the mystery they are attempting to unravel they find themselves in situations that raise interesting questions about the nature of humanity and what actually constitutes personage as opposed to just a highly complex simulacrum. These questions are never directly addressed in dialogue, but do underline much of the story from the illegal practice of removing a robot’s programmed prohibitions against harming humans or “jailbreaking” to Carlos’s attempts to reach out to his former wife and daughter. The film offers no real concrete answer, but that only helps to heighten the tale’s moral ambiguity.

There is one interesting thing that Perrin seems to suggest here. Nearly all the human characters shown have some sort technological/cybernetic implant in their bodies. Most of these are in the form of personal communication devices that allows them to converse, and receive visual imagery as well, with others without audibly talking. The use of these technology seems as commonplace as someone wearing glasses does to us. But when we see Aline and Carlos use this communication frequently in their work, we start to see a suggestion that as robots and artificial intelligence may becoming actual sentient beings of their own, humans are starting to evolve in direction that would make them more robot-like and dependent on technology. The idea of blurring the biological and technological becomes somewhat central to the film’s denouement.

There is also a healthy dose of pulp noir authors Raymond Chandler and Dashielle Hammett at play here, with detective Aline being cut from similar cloth as the hard-boiled detectives from these two authors that the likes of Humphrey Bogart would often bring to life. As such, Mars Express does end on a somewhat cynical, if not downright bleak note, one not necessarily set up by what came before. But within that cynicism there is a rather harsh critique of the forces behind the mysteries that Aline and Carlos found themselves drawn into over the course of the movie. It is almost as dark as the ending to Chinatown and helps to make Mars Express a welcome addition to not just the canon of neo-noir but one of its better entries.

Mars Express
Image via GKids.
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About Rich Drees 7205 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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