The animated sci-fi mystery Mars Express aims high and lands among the stars

A woman stares in astonishment at the face of a female android that has split down the middle in Mars Express.
Image: Everybody on Deck/GKIDS

Chinatown meets Ghost in the Shell in this sci-fi noir thriller

Science fiction has always been a fertile genre for telling stories that revolve around mysteries. From Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, sci-fi and mystery go together as perfectly as a culprit’s hand in a blood-stained glove. Mars Express, the debut feature from French animator-director Jérémie Périn, is further proof of the connection, by taking the basic elements of a Chinatown-esque story about a missing person and a deadly conspiracy, and iterating on them in the far-flung world of colonized space filled with sentient machines and bleeding-edge technology.

Set in the 23rd century, the film follows Aline Ruby and Carlos Rivera, a pair of private eyes dispatched to Earth to bring in a hacker accused of jailbreaking robots, effectively unshackling them from the safeguards created to keep them docile and subservient to humans. When their investigation hits an unexpected dead end, Aline and Carlos accept another case, this one concerning a college student who mysteriously went missing after her roommate was murdered in their dorm room. In true noir fashion, the pair steadily discover that the two seemingly separate cases are not only in fact deeply intertwined, but pertinent to a plot that threatens the foundations of human-robot society.

A blonde-haired woman in a yellow trench coat kneels next to a white haired woman covered in blue liquid across from a leg-less robot standing on its hands in Mars Express.
Image: Everybody on Deck/GKIDS

Since the late 2000s, Périn has steadily made a name for himself as one of the most creative, boundary-pushing directors in French animation for his work on shows including Lastman, the animated comedy short series Merci Satan, and NSFW music videos for artists like the Flaming Lips, DyE, and Flairs. With Mars Express, Périn leans wholesale into his anime-inspired sensibilities and aesthetic to create a mature, grounded, and thoroughly imagined cyberpunk universe rife with shady characters, dazzling metropolitan vistas, and electrifying action sequences. It’s not just an entertaining sci-fi thriller, it’s a thoughtful rumination on the future of human labor, planned obsolescence, and the uneasy potential of the technological singularity.

Fans of 2023’s Scavengers Reign will no doubt vibe with Mars Express’ art direction. While the movie is far from Scavengers Reign’s ecologically focused survival thriller, both Périn’s film and Joe Bennett and Charles Huettner’s animated series share a common touchpoint in their ligne claire-influenced character designs and environments. Mars Express’ vision of the far future is heavily indebted to our present, with the modernist Zaha Hadid-esque architecture of Mars’ capital city, Noctis, juxtaposed against the pollution-choked urban sprawl of Earth.

A woman in a yellow raincoat walking down a neon-lit street in a futuristic city in Mars Express.
Image: Everybody on Deck/GKIDS

The attention to detail dedicated to the film’s worldbuilding also extends to its many android characters, each with their own unique design and personality. The comparison to Scavengers Reign isn’t arbitrary: Jonathan Djob Nkondo, who worked as a character artist and designer on that series, also contributed robot designs for Mars Express.

The film’s protagonists are compelling and charismatic, but they also reflect the filmmakers’ intentions to create a sci-fi noir mystery that pushes the genre forward. Aline Ruby is a sympathetic mess in a way that’s unusual for animated female characters. A recovering alcoholic with a deadpan sense of humor and a dogged dedication to her job, Aline oozes loneliness and yearning for human connection in a way that makes her fascinating to watch.

A robot with a holographic head and a red arm points to a screen next to a blonde haired woman in a trenchcoat in a futuristic vehicle in Mars Express.
Image: Everybody on Deck/GKIDS

The same appeal is matched, if not outright eclipsed, by her partner Carlos, if only because he’s the resurrected consciousness of her dead partner, holographically preserved in an android body. Carlos is, for all intents and purposes, still Carlos, but his new life as a cybernetic entity complicates his material existence and rights in human/robot society, as well as his overall sense of identity. Estranged from his ex-wife and dogged by uncertainties about his place in the world, Carlos is pivotal in anchoring the audience’s understanding of Mars Express’ themes and ideas.

Mars Express is the rare example of an animated feature that warrants an almost immediate rewatch upon completion, if only to appreciate the craftsmanship of its presentation. It’s a densely layered sci-fi story that’s light on proper nouns, but heavy on subtext. It’s set in a world that doesn’t tell so much as it shows the depth of its narrative and worldbuilding, by trusting its audience to pay close attention and connect the dots alongside the film’s characters. In short, it’s a rare example of “adult” animation that treats its audience like adults, and its execution elevates its premise until it stands confidently as one of the year’s best animated features.

Mars Express opens in select theaters nationwide on May 3.

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