The difference between humans and machines is one of the great themes of science fiction from Blade Runner to Ghost in the Shell. Mars Express takes its name from an Earth-Mars shuttle which, following a bravura action / chase sequence early on, not unlike the one at the start of Ghost in the Shell, is used by private investigator Aline Ruby (voice: Léa Drucker) and her assistant Carlos Rivera (voice: Daniel Njo Lobé) to transport a captured suspect from Earth to Mars where, it transpires on arrival, the relevant paperwork to detain their prisoner has been wiped from their on-person devices and internet-accessible office, meaning they are forced to release their prisoner. The narrative is littered with cleverly thought out ideas like this.
The setting is the 23rd century and mostly Mars, where the pair are hired to search for a second year cybernetics student who has gone missing. This is a world where humans and android robots co-exist side by side, and although the latter are generally constructed to obey various laws of robotics which will prevent them harming humans (Asimov’s three laws are implied but not specifically named), there are various android states in which this prevention no longer applies, for instance robots which have been jailbroken. There are also robots which are cloned copies of human beings, able to live on with those humans’ consciousness after the original humans have died.
Carlos is one of these clones, he himself having been killed in battle as a soldier, and is subject to periodic immobilisation to accept downloads as and when new software upgrades become available. Clearly, no-one thought to give him the ability to switch this facility off until times when it’s convenient – immobilisation can take place when he’s grasped a suspect by the wrist, leaving them trapped in his grip and unable to move while his frozen body’s technology takes the time to do its thing.
He’s also a father who never came to terms with the collapse of his marriage and his ex-wife’s separation in his lifetime, and now periodically visits her when she and her cop husband don’t want him anywhere near them or his daughter. In a similarly well-developed piece of characterisation, the human Aline is a former alcoholic counting the number of days she’s stayed dry who hits the nearest bar when things suddenly go off the rails.
The fairly complex plot, which implicates the well-off Chris Royjacker (voice: Mathieu Almaric) in a conspiracy, is likely to be repaid by multiple viewings, as are the superb art direction and visuals. Like Blade Runner, it marries the aesthetics of film noir with science fiction, but unlike that film it’s realised not in live action but in animation, owing a heavy debt to Ghost in the Shell in particular. The opening action, robots and a giant insectoid tank later on have that film written all over them.
However, the animation is directed with a complete grasp of certain stylistic tricks the Japanese have successfully used for years, for instance scenes or elements within shots which are completely static where they don’t need to move (compared to the Western tendency to fully animate everything, whether or not it contributes to the drive or arc of the narrative).
Yet, even if in places it looks a lot like Ghost in the Shell, the Japaneseness has been replaced by a completely French aesthetic. France is the land which developed the bande dessinée, after all, as well as being one of the small number of countries that, like the US, Japan, Canada and the Czech Republic, can truly be said to possess an indigenous animation industry.
Detail on the twin levels of script and design are extremely well-thought-out or worked through, so that you really believe and feel immersed in the human and robot-populated Martian world into which the filmmakers want to plunge you.
In short, this is a real treat for science fiction devotees, animation buffs and anime fans. Groundbreaking stuff.
Mars Express premiered ion the Main programme of Kinoff and Midnight Shivers sections of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. Also showing at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival.