MARS EXPRESS. Great science fiction animation

A script pieced together from several other, probably better, science fiction works—succeeds due to brilliant, original ideas.

Jan Brzozowski

27 June 2024

mars express

Jérémie Périn doesn’t mess around. He starts his debut film Mars Express the way every good crime story should begin: with a murder. A cybernetics student is killed in cold blood by someone posing as a police officer. At the request of the girl’s father, the investigation is led by private detective and former military officer Alin Ruby. As time goes on, the investigation broadens, bringing deadly danger to all involved.

Périn mixes genres. He begins with a noir crime story—a brutal, mysterious murder and a cynical detective struggling with alcohol addiction—but doesn’t stop there. Of course, Mars Express is primarily science fiction. It draws heavily from genre classics like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Metropolis (2001). We all know these themes well: the boundaries of humanity, android consciousness, machine rebellion, corruption, and corporate conspiracy. Overused yet timeless. Unlike many predecessors, Périn is able to craft an engaging story from them. It may not be groundbreaking, but it’s precise and convincing: derivative, yet not foolish. Full of colorful characters, sharp dialogue, and narrative twists that help maintain a breakneck pace—worthy of the greatest hits of American action cinema.

mars express

The French director gained professional experience primarily on the set of the animated series Lastman, an adaptation of a popular French fantasy comic series. Visual storytelling, characteristic of comic art, has clearly become second nature to him. Although there’s a lot of dialogue in Mars Express, the most important information is conveyed through visuals. Action reigns supreme here: shootouts in side alleys and chases behind strip clubs. Transitions between sequences are extremely dynamic, often driven by gestures or details. The only moments to catch your breath are provided by short, black screens appearing after significant plot events.

The greatest pleasure in viewing comes not from following the story, but from exploring the world in which it’s set. Périn and his collaborators build it with meticulous care. They don’t explain the rules in the first few minutes with tautological narration or a text screen serving as a prologue. They trust our intelligence and pop culture competence, operating subtly, focusing on details. And it’s these details, the small ideas, that make the world come alive, believable, and above all, interesting. Examples? Sure. The sobriety mode that activates automatically when the protagonist tries to order whiskey at a bar. The brain farm the characters infiltrate to gather information about the murdered student’s roommate. A support group for backups that function as robots long after their human originals have died. Fully organic androids slowly replacing their mechanical predecessors. There are many creative subplots in Périn’s film that could be listed for a long time.

mars express

Mars Express, like some of its characters, is a hybrid. A combination of drawn and computer animation. To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of such extravagant mixes. They were jarring even in Disney animations from the turn of the century. Pixar‘s experiments led to a technological breakthrough—the transition to computer animation happened gradually, step by step. In Treasure Planet or Atlantis: The Lost Empire, they tried to combine two-dimensional characters with three-dimensional innovations. It looked odd, sometimes clumsy, and somewhat unnatural (but still better than the fully three-dimensional Chicken Little). Mars Express is similar. It’s pleasant to look at the drawn characters, but the three-dimensional backgrounds, props, or vehicles appear quite artificial in comparison. Almost as if they come from another, thousands of miles away, cosmic world.

I first watched Périn’s debut over eight months ago, during the Kamera Akcja Festival in Łódź. I look at the short note I made then: “A script pieced together from several other, probably better, science fiction works—succeeds due to brilliant, original ideas.” A second viewing only confirmed this opinion. The enormous world-building potential overshadows the main narrative line, but that’s not a bad thing—you won’t regret any time spent aboard the Mars Express.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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