Cyberpunk Anime Mars Express Stands Out from the Pack

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Cyberpunk Anime Mars Express Stands Out from the Pack

Mars Express is an unabashed genre flic from director Jérémie Périn and French studio Everybody on Deck. The noir thriller takes us on a contemplative tour of a thoughtfully considered future, where traveling between Lunar and Martian colonies is as easy as flight today.

We follow Aline Ruby (Morla Gorrondona), some sort of cop investigating a mysterious disappearance and murder linked to unusual behavior among the humanoid robots of a patron corporation—and it’s filled with all the tropes of the setting and story you might expect. It’s a setting where humanoid robots (think Asimov) and transhumanist tech (think Oshii) are commonplace, prodding at the boundary between life and creation. 

While Mars Express draws as much from live-action classics like 2001 and Blade Runner, these animated settings evoke the classics of the medium: Patlabor, Akira, Ghost in the Shell. It all invites comparison and sets some expectations, which is somewhat to Mars Express’ detriment. 

Mars Express’ art direction isn’t very moving, lacking striking visuals that could easily live alongside its inspirations. Its script (from Périn and Laurent Sarfati) is similarly just a bit too quiet for its own good—there’s no moment where the hooks sink in to you. Mars Express rides instead on moments like a cat’s skin zipping off to reveal a mechanical frame beneath, or in considering all the implications of artificial mind and body duplication (ranging from espionage to sex work). If you linger in its world long enough for a second viewing, there’s much to appreciate. 

While the aesthetic doesn’t do much for me, and I still don’t know what the filmmakers were going for with its characters’ facial expressions, Mars Express’ incorporation of 3D CG is seamless in a way that almost makes up for it. On a technical level, it’s great. And the actual designs of the many robots contribute as much to the film’s world building as all of the writing. There are evident trends in design, following fashion, utility and philosophy—moving towards less-than-human shapes as corporations now begin to introduce organic tech. 

Since the artificial workers of Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. revolted in a proletariat uprising, the android allegory in film and animation has reflected contemporary class anxieties. These have tapped into the gothic horror of white plantation owners, the xenophobia of crime and immigration in megacities, and the social deviance of transhumanism. Mars Express easily maps onto the turbulent service sector that undergirds the social and material infrastructure of an imperial core. Robots here can be read as rideshare drivers, line cooks, deliveristas, sex workers, and contractors. 

The deuteragonist, Carlos Rivera (Daniel Njo Lobé), is an old android back-up of a cop killed by “liberated” androids in an uprising (that have been modified to be able to cause harm to humans). Now he lives as one and faces their persecution. He’s treated with hostility by his ex-wife and estranged from his daughter; Aline says he’s dead, but he disagrees. Without giving too much away, there’s a mass peaceful protest, intercut with news coverage of pundits arguing with each other, one asking if they condemn the violence that we know is entirely one-sided. Contemporary.

For as quiet as Mars Express really is, action is loud. And again, while the choreography doesn’t doesn’t do anything spectacular, everything from the sound effects to the deaths written into the script help add weight to this world. And it’s carried by an English dub cast that, like the animation, just clicks without me ever really thinking about it. It’s all deeply grounded for being set in space.

I’m left wondering what wider audiences will take from Mars Express. I can’t imagine that Mars Express will live alongside the animated cyberpunk greats of Ghost in the Shell or more contemporary additions like Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, especially for those not as well-versed in the subgenre. But I hope it’s remembered. 

Director: Jérémie Périn
Writer: Jérémie Périn, Laurent Sarfati
Starring: Léa Drucker, Mathieu Amalric, Daniel Njo Lobé, Marie Bouvet, Sébastien Chassagne, Marthe Keller
Release Date: May 3, 2024

Autumn Wright is a freelance games critic and anime journalist. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.

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