Teenagers train at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center to become the engineers and astronauts of tomorrow, with hopes of leading mankind's journey to Mars.
Since NASA’s first mission to Mars in 1964, humanity has seen the planet as the ideal target for the first interplanetary space mission. In The Mars Generation, director Michael Barnett delves into space exploration’s history and current state while looking beyond technology to what we will really need to get to the Red Planet: the power of youthful dreams.
Through amazing archival footage of the space program as well as interviews with a number of scientists and astronauts—including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Sunita Williams—Barnett provides an overview of the history and current state of space exploration. The film juxtaposes this with a revealing and intimate look at participants in NASA’s space camp for youth. These self-proclaimed “space nerds” aspire to be the scientists, engineers, and technicians on whose shoulders humanity will reach the Red Planet. Their infectious passion and optimism is the heart of the film, leaving little doubt that if given the support and opportunities they need, they will get us there.
There’s something immediately endearing about The Mars Generation, Netflix documentary about the future of space exploration. Maybe it’s because watching an eager group of teenagers pursue their passion is compelling in the way that only exuberant youth is. Maybe it’s because during the day-to-day struggles of being a person, it’s nice to have a reminder that humans have done some really impressive things. For these reasons and so many more, the hour and a half long documentary is worth checking out if you’re feeling a little down and looking for something light-hearted.
The Mars Generation doesn’t break any narrative ground, nor does it try to. It’s a sweet documentary that hinges on the enthusiasm of a group of teenage space camp attendees. These campers are exactly what you would expect — delightfully geeky, obsessed with space, and so excited about their camp of choice, it’s visible. However, what drives these young adults is the same thing that drives the entire documentary: passion. The Mars Generation is a documentary that’s practically bursting at the seams with a loving appreciation of what mankind has accomplished as well as a deep desire to one day reach Mars. At its core, this is a film about pushing the limits of innovation and celebrating our past. It’s hard to hate something so positive.
That being said, The Mars Generation doesn’t really offer much ground-breaking information about what it would take to get humans to Mars. It’s almost strictly a feel-good documentary, taking time to dwell on the small triumphs and talking head interviews of its camp goers instead of taking an in-depth dive into the obstacles that may prevent a trip to Mars. This is a large reason why the documentary’s many celebrities work. It’s such a shallow explanation of space exploration it doesn’t feel out of place having Bill Nye explain Nixon’s role in space travel or The Martian author Andy Weir speak about the success of his book. In fact, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s energetic explanations account for some of the doc’s best moments. It’s a documentary that doesn’t seem to prove much other than space exploration is pretty awesome.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Mars Generation doesn’t seem to be a documentary for established space lovers but for people who are marginally interested in science. Currently, the title is available for a wide range of audiences, the youngest option being Netflix’s Older Children and Below option. I could certainly see this teen-led documentary being a streaming source of inspiration for kids who love STEM subjects. In this way, it’s not so much The Mars Generation’s content but its tone and prevalence on Netflix that makes the documentary good.
Michael Barnett’s documentary presents a bubble where kids passionately pursuing their academic interests is something to be praised. That’s a welcome departure from so many teen dramas that often ignore these characteristics and ambitions. There’s a palpable community in the documentary, with the teenagers working together, complimenting each other on code they’ve created, and celebrating when their rockets work. As the documentary progresses, there’s a sense you’re literally watching the future at work — an established tone that is both a bit heavy-handed and accurate.
Early in the documentary, one of the campers says, “Having a man — or woman — walk on Mars is just the most badass thought in my mind.” That slightly irreverent but direct statement sums up all that’s good about The Mars Generation. When you think about it, space travel is an incredibly cool human accomplishment, and there’s a very good chance humans may one day make it to Mars. Why couldn’t those future Mars colonizers be the next generation?