Roving Mars

An IMAX documentary directed by George Butler. Rated G. Now playing at the IMAX Theatre at Canada Place

Who could have predicted that a film with a title like Roving Mars would not be the latest science-fiction fantasy but a documentary with giant-screen footage of real robots roaming the Red Planet? It's like a Ray Bradbury story come to life-minus the mind-reading Martians, of course.

Fortunately for moviegoers, this look at NASA's 2003 Mars mission has many of the key ingredients of a good sci-fi flick: two robotic Mars rovers that have as much personality as R2-D2; a space explorer as passionate as Capt. James T. Kirk; a haunting Philip Glass soundtrack as dramatic as Alien's haunting symphonies; and 3-D animation as realistic as that of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. The result is a suspense-filled, you-are-there experience, whether it's joining in on the nail-biting at mission control or hurtling through the atmosphere on an unmanned rocketship.

Part of the skill of director George Butler (who made the equally excellent Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure) is in making science sexy. In the film's first half, it's hard not to get caught up as scientist Steve Squyres and his team go through endless trial and error trying to perfect their remote-controlled, wheeled rovers. At one point, we see a priceless parachute get ripped to shreds on a test landing. ("The fact that the chute exploded: not a good thing," quips one of the eggheads, dryly noting this was the exact device they were going to use in the mission.) As the project starts to run out of time and money, there's no room for mistakes: one scientist likens the precision of the needed calculations to shooting a basketball from Los Angeles to New York and having it go through the hoop without hitting the rim.

The film's second half tracks the rovers' voyage to Mars, seamlessly editing digitally generated images with the IMAX-resolution photos sent back from the robots. It's often impossible to tell the difference between the two, which could mean a couple of different things: either we've come a long way in the animation world or the filmmakers aren't being entirely up-front about which is which.

What's beyond debate is that NASA accomplished its mission, and more: the rovers found dry lake beds and traces of ice within the rocks-which suggests that life may or may not have once existed on Mars. Coming up next at an IMAX near you: The Real Martian Chronicles.