Credit: Everybody on Deck/GKIDS
by Jake Tropila Featured Film Genre Views

Mars Express — Jérémie Périn

May 2, 2024

As a director, Jérémie Périn has made a splash in the realm of music videos, namely for his contribution to the song “Fantasy” by French artist DyE. That short, in which four teens’ seemingly innocent night of drinking and swimming devolves into a blood-spattered nightmare, was characterized by its striking 2D animation, which melded a very naturalistic look with outright horrifying imagery, leaving a memorable imprint on the medium. With Mars Express, Périn makes his feature film debut, shifting focus from Lovecraftian horror to speculative science fiction but still retaining much of the real-world horrors that affect society today, namely regarding coexistence of human life and artificial intelligence. The film ultimately pulls from more influences than Périn might care to admit, but Mars Express still succeeds as an exercise in cyberpunk neo-noir, and proves the director has not lost his touch while transitioning to an elongated narrative.

The year is 2200, and Earth has largely been abandoned for Mars, with the red planet colonized to sustain future life. Among the living is Aline Ruby, a hard-boiled cop investigating a series of “jailbroken” androids, a risky procedure that results in granting the robot free will (and has historically produced a deadly outcome for any humans in the vicinity). Aline is partnered with Carlos Rivera, an officer who has actually been physically dead for five years but perseveres in a bionic exoskeleton of his own, complete with a floating hologram of his former visage. The pair are introduced in the middle of a sting operation that quickly goes awry, resulting in a violent chase through multiple high-rise apartment buildings while anti-AI protests rage on in the streets below. It’s a corker of an opening sequence, and one that adroitly introduces us to the world of Mars Express. Androids are a ubiquitous presence on Mars, as is android skepticism, with protestors bearing signs with slogans like “PROTECT HUMAN WORKERS” and “SMASH ALL ROBOTS.” Despite being set 75 years in the future, Mars Express echoes a lot of contemporary sentiments, with a faction of humans feeling the threat of obsolescence. (In one of the film’s best jokes, a doctor would rather wait for an update on his robotic suturing machine than do the job himself.)

The details of Mars Express are terrific. Humans are equipped with cybernetic implants, allowing them to wordlessly join conference calls, share data files, and even utilize their own thermal vision to investigate crime scenes. There’s also the added benefit of having an android on the police force, who can thermal-scan buildings for life sources and shoot with deadly accuracy. One thrilling sequence finds Carlos pinned down behind cover by multiple gunmen. The solution? Fire his gun in the air at specific angles and let gravity take care of the rest. (This bit alone is awesome enough to warrant the price of admission.) And at the heart of the story is Aline, a tough-as-nails cop and recovering alcoholic, a trait that requires her own vocal authorization to terminate her implant’s “sobriety mode” before she can down hard liquor. Carlos also deals with hardships of his own, struggling to maintain a relationship with his daughter and ex-wife, who has moved on to a new man with his passing. The pair find themselves at odds with the world, as their investigation pulls them in many different directions, including a hacked robot that goes berserk, a missing college student involved in underground “brain farming”, and even an Elon Musk-type tech billionaire who may be behind an insidious plot to jailbreak all androids simultaneously, the ramifications of which could wipe out the human race.

If one thing troubles Mars Express, it’s that it’s filled with arguably too many allusions to other notable works within the same subgenre. Intentional or not, these prove tough to ignore: the notion of androids being hacked is straight out of Ghost in the Shell, the futuristic setting recalls Cowboy Bebop, and one stunning sequence feels like the continuation of 2001’s famous stargate sequence. Cell phones of the 23rd century have adapted into fleshy earpods that feel lifted from the work of David Cronenberg, and vehicles are even outfitted with a safety foam that expands and engulfs occupants in the event of a collision, something that has been cribbed directly from Demolition Man. And yet, despite all this, Périn succeeds at still making Mars Express distinctly his own, showcasing impressive storytelling chops and punctuating the film with his gorgeously realized animation. And a major assist is provided by the propulsive electronic score courtesy of Fred Avril and Philippe Monthaye, which is likewise exceptional and thrums with real energy. Tension in the narrative rises as the film heads into act three, but surprisingly enough Mars Express never escalates into a full-scale apocalyptic event, with Périn instead closing out the picture beautifully, and even hopefully. In a world that so often looks as awful and tumultuous as the one we inhabit, a happy ending truly feels like science fiction.

DIRECTOR: Jérémie Périn;  CAST: Léa Drucker, Mathieu Amalric, Daniel Njo Lobé, Marie Bouvet;  DISTRIBUTOR: GKIDS;  IN THEATERS: May 3;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 28 min.