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Review: “Mars Express” Delivers As a New Cyberpunk Classic


For fans of sci-fi and those craving breakthroughs for adult-oriented and global 2D animation, the hype is justified. Mars Express is a true cyberpunk thriller following in the tradition of such landmarks as Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner. It’s an unmistakable triumph for French director and co-writer Jérémie Périn (Lastman) depicting a mystery in a radical future that nonetheless feels as if it’s as lived in and true as any down-to-Earth real-world setting one would care to name.

At the dawn of the 23rd century humanity has expanded well beyond Earth to exist in self-contained cities on Mars and elsewhere in outer space, and advancements in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence correspond to that expansion. Robots of many shapes and sizes live and work alongside humans in ways indistinguishable from a regular person, and many of them appear human. Humans can network with each other and carry on entire group conversations with only thought, and it’s apparently even possible for a person to “backup” their personality into a robot brain and body that will then behave in a way indistinguishable from the original. The robots are still constrained by a set of directives inspired by Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics and a voice command can turn them off, but despite that the line distinguishing robots from humans is very blurred and thin here.

That reality is lost on no one in this society, and inevitably reactions are mixed. Many people accept it completely, others riot over ideas of resisting being “replaced” in the labor force by their synthetic counterparts. Then there are those dissatisfied enough with the lot of robots to flout the law by illegally “jailbreaking” them, removing all programmed restrictions and effectively granting them complete free will – so long as they aren’t so unstable or otherwise unusual that they attract the attention of the authorities, that is.

Enter human detective Aline Ruby and her partner Carlos Rivera, backed up to an android body after his “death” five years prior. The film opens to the two going into action to apprehend a robot hacker on Earth, only for Aline to find her pride and sense of justice wounded when it turns out that arrest warrants can be manipulated just as well as robot protocols. The duo’s rebound case on Mars is to solve a murder and a missing person’s case regarding a cybernetics student and her roommate, with yet another matter of suspected jailbreaking involved in the entire affair. But as unexpected dangers and revelations manifest the deeper into the case they go, the truth of just how far robot hacking might be able to go and the prospect of corporate conspiracies just might alter the destiny of both humans and robots for good.

Mars Express is a riveting, sobering and difficult thing to watch. It gives no easy answers for the questions and problems it poses, and the issue of robot emancipation is interwoven with age-old vice of simple human greed. For instance, if huge segments of human society are uncomfortable with robots taking the jobs or even just existing at all, it follows that there’s good business to be had in inventing something that can be marketed as the next step beyond them. It’s easy to view the “jailbreaking” of robots as a positive thing in the context of this setting, and yet it’s implied time and again that instability and even violence are every bit as possible as the simple joy of a fully emancipated silicon soul. The film performs exceptional world building for its futuristic society, yet this is cyberpunk through and through – to behold most of the setting’s wondrous technological advancements is to cope with a nagging, foreboding suspicion that what we’ve made may not be a good thing.

The depth and shades of gray inherent to the setting apply to the lead characters as well, to the film’s credit. Aline is a strong heroine who carries a strong sense of justice to a fault, but she’s not above such flaws as having a temper and a struggle to ward off a return to alcoholism. For his part, with all his metal limbs and a sort of holographic projection that passes for a head, Carlos ironically just might be the most human-seeming and relatable character in the entire movie. He’s a stalwart partner and seems to be genuinely good at heart and yet estranged from the wife and daughter he loved prior to his “death”, and the viewer has occasion to witness a fierce temper and deep sadness in him every bit as much as his stalwart loyalty and healthy sense of humor. Through Aline we witness and comprehend this futuristic world, and through Carlos’ emotions and their tension with android protocols we are moved to consider questions of sentience and what it really is to exist as a human. Through him and the story’s events, a lurking question is asked in ever-louder tones: can humanity really think to create imitations or even copies of itself, place restrictions on them that any human would call an outrageous denial of liberty, and dare to expect that it could possibly end well for anyone involved?

Over and above the big topics raised by the movie, I find that for my money Mars Express can arguably be considered a well-timed arrival for those who enjoyed the anime adaptation of Pluto in 2023. The issues raised there are quite different of course, but in my sight there’s no question that those riveted by the investigations and personal struggles of Inspector Geischt from that work will find plenty to appreciate here as well. All in all, for fans of the cyberpunk genre, Mars Express is unquestionably a can’t-miss experience.

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