Approaching the Unknown (formerly Ad Inexplorata) is a philosophical sci-fi film about a man alone on a one-way mission in outer space. Captain William D. Stanaforth, a scientist who is willing to risk his life to for his experiments, is making the journey to Mars intent on starting a colony. He sets out with confidence and clear scientific goals, but when technology fails him and his own hubris gets him in trouble, the mission breaks him down and he must seek a new philosophy in order to continue. Approaching the Unknown is a film about exploring the limits of human experience to appreciate that the mysteries of the universe will always be ineffable. 

The film was written and directed by Mark Elijah Rosenberg, and stars Mark Strong. It was released theatrically by Paramount Pictures and Vertical Entertainment in 2016, and is available on iTunes and Amazon. The soundtrack by Paul Damian Hogan is available on Bandcamp.

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Director's Statement

With Approaching the Unknown, I hope to resist standard notions of science fiction, with its emphasis on explication and practicality, to focus on what's beautiful, magical and ineffable about exploration and all human experience. My intention with this film was to create an intimate, intellectual character study of a man who thought he knew what he was doing, thought he was in control, but loses control and is forced to change. He comes to see that understanding and power and happiness come from openness, experience, change. He transforms from a confident engineer into a humble explorer, a poet.


This theme is very personal for me, because I have a tendency to want to do things all on my own, to control all aspects of an endeavor before embarking on it, to know the answers before I ask the questions. The process of making this film was one of the most agonizing and inspiring challenges in my life. The project changed tremendously from conception to completion, in some ways for better, in many for worse. Where the film fails is where it feels over-determined, conventional, scripted: the “action” scenes, the generic astronaut relationships, the forced narrative need for technical problems. I would’ve liked to change those things. And I think the best of the project is where we explored, improvised, discovered the emotion and ideas in the process of production. The strange mystery of the practical special effects, the ingenuity of the set design and camerawork in a confined location, the rich monologues and surprising voice over, the scenes of quiet repetition and revelation when Stanaforth notices something magical: particles in his eyes, drops of moisture in the wall, the sun through the window.


I hope viewers appreciate the subtle nuance of the film, imagining beyond the immediate plot to the deeper ideas and meaning. Along with our dedicated crew, I put all my heart and energy into this film. It was indeed a one-way journey into the unknown. 

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Approaching the Unknown was released theatrically (plus on iTunes and Amazon) by Paramount Pictures and Vertical Entertainment, starting June 3, 2016. The film played in the following theaters:

New York: Cinema Village (22 E 12th St, New York, NY 10003) 
New York: AMC 34th Street (312 W 34th St, New York, NY 10001) ~Q&A 
Los Angeles: Laemmle Royal (11523 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025) 
Dallas, TX: AMC Parks @ Arlington (3861 South Cooper St, Arlington, TX 76015) 
Santa Clara, CA: AMC Mercado (3111 Mission College Blvd, Santa Clara, CA 95054) 
Washington, DC: AMC Hoffman (206 Swamp Fox Rd, Alexandria, VA 22314) 
Houston: AMC Gulf Pointe (11801 South Sam Houston Pkwy E, Houston, TX 770890) 
Tempe, AZ: Harkins Valley Art (509 S Mill Ave, Tempe, AZ 85281) 
Miami, FL: AMC Aventura (19501 Biscayne Blvd, Aventura, FL 33180) 
Cleveland, OH: Capitol Theatre (1390 W 65th St, Cleveland, OH 44102) 
Orlando, FL: AMC Disney Springs (1500 Buena Vista Dr, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830)
If you can't go in person, you can watch it on demand via iTunes or Amazon.

Writer / Director Mark Elijah Rosenberg hosted a Q&A following the screening on Saturday, June 4, 6:10pm at the AMC 34th Street (NYC). Get tickets!


Because the character is isolated in unknown territory -- there’d be no camera crew out there -- I wanted the outer space shots to feel subjective, from Stanaforth’s perspective or imagination. So it was important to me to create a visceral, tactile feel to the models and to space itself, and I thought we could achieve that using practical models instead of computer graphics.

We convinced special effects legend Douglas Trumbull to let us shoot at his studio in the rural Berkshires, and it was amazing to have the advice of the man behind the models for “2001,” “Blade Runner,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and many others. Our production designer, Steven Brower, knows more about actual space science than some folks I’ve met at NASA, and he designed a ship inspired by genuine practicalities as well as our speculative fiction. I know it was a real challenge for him—one you wouldn’t have with CGI—to make a ship that was structurally sound. Our hero Zephyr was about six feet long, with an eight foot spinning arm, and it had to actually work. I think you can “feel” the size of the thing on screen, how incongruous it is that this giant machine is floating weightless up there.

Lastly, I wanted space itself to have a texture. For me personally, the closest I could come to understanding what it would be like to be in the darkness of space would be like being deep under the ocean: it feels empty, but there’s viscosity, and you know it’s teeming with life, much like in space, with radio waves and subatomic particles, space dust and comets, planets and stars. So we shot all this footage in “cloud tanks” filled with glycerin, corn syrup, salt water, into which we would inject dyes and powders and metallic particles. Again, you get these incredible tactile effects that are unique to the materials, and which I think create a subjective mood of growing madness and beauty that is fitting to the story.

I’m extremely proud of the special effects in the film, and one of the best things about doing them practically was just how fun and creative it was. A huge, stressful challenge, but a joy to achieve.

Principle photography was shot on a set in Kerhonkson, NY, deep in the snowy winter. I wanted to get the crew to a remote location to create a "summer camp" feel, where everyone was living together, eating together, bonding and focused solely on the film. Being in a big empty warehouse for three months of set construction and one month of shooting also created an effective atmosphere of (happy) isolation; like the character, we were off on our own, having a crazy adventure, trying to survive.

The spaceship set, The Zephyr, designed by Steven Brower, was 12 feet wide and 36 feet long, plus the "lander" capsule. It consisted of three 12' x 12' boxes, with removable walls so we could move the camera in and out. When the walls were all in place, the only entrances were through the ship's "closet" (which we called Narnia). The set was fabricated using a wild combination of airplane parts, medical detritus, random junk, and original pieces made just for the shoot. The crew did an amazing job making a nuanced and realistic ship on a limited budget. The Zephyr is a character in the film, and its evolution through the film is crucial to the narrative. 

Our DP, Adam Newport-Berra, did a brilliant job finding a variety of ways to frame the ship throughout the film, so there's always something new to see. We shot a lot of the film on a crane, extended into the ship and floating through it. All of the lighting was practical, with a design by gaffer TJ Alston that was controlled via computer. It was our idea that for the sanity of the character, the space agency would design the ship to have a diurnal lighting cycle, so we could set different scenes at different times of day and evoke different moods.   

All FX photos by Danny "Starfield" Garfield. All principle photos by Irwin Seow.

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A little over a century ago, mankind had never been to the North Pole. We had never been deeper into the ocean than one lungful of breath. We hadn’t explored volcanoes or flown on our own power. The world was vast and unknown, and most people only experienced their immediate surroundings. Today, you can fly from New York City to the North Pole in a few hours, or drive a rented Humvee down the Amazon basin. Remote native populations are being crushed by development, but have internet access. The world is known, connected, and in great danger.

With our knowledge and convenience it is easy to grow callous. For some, an eco-friendly hiking trip in the rainforest or an online video chat with the leader of a native village in Africa can temporarily restore our interest and compassion, but it would take grand adventures, genuine danger, and tragic struggle to restore a true sense of wonder and mystery to the general populace.

A life-and-death journey to Mars would inspire the world. And this is the scenario for Approaching the Unknown.

Outer space is an unimaginably vast territory, and may always remain so for mankind. Ironically, for Stanaforth, the lead astronaut in Approaching the Unknown, a trip through these limitless depths would require transport in a small dark cage of a ship, cut off from the very fabric of the universe he is exploring. Communication during the arduous, lonely excursion would be limited to time-delayed radio messages and grainy video recordings. Stanaforth’s journey will take him further from Earth than any human being has ever been, he will take on physical challenges similar to thousands of explorers before him, but his biggest challenge will be mental: overcoming his isolation and fears. Yet if survives the expedition and lands on Mars, he will be gloriously celebrated in history, joyously reunited with his fellow astronauts, and exposed to experiences unknown to mankind.

The voyage to Mars in Approaching the Unknown is the perfect metaphor for and antidote to modern existence, and with this project I hope to inspire viewers to seek adventure and a sense of wonder in the world. 

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Although set on a ship using technology that is conceptually feasible in the realistic near future, I wanted the film to go beyond the literal experience of a journey in space. My concerns scientifically were to be as accurate as possible, while still creating the emotional, intellectual and dramatic scenarios I wanted to address.

Perhaps the most important place where we made an artistic digression from the literal is in the view of space itself--in our movie it has texture and color. What we created is not unlike some of the images you might see from the Hubble telescope, showing the light and magnetism of multiple galaxies, only we created that same look relatively small distances in space, between Earth and Mars. This was important to me because the only way I could comprehend being in deep space would be like being deep in the ocean: it’s vast and dark and deadly and seemingly empty, but of course it’s also filled with bacteria and minnows and whales and quarks and comets and planets. To understand the ocean, even if you’re in it, you need to imagine it. So Stanaforth’s experience of space must likewise be subjective. At the beginning of the movie, we present a more traditional, literal outer space: blackness with tiny white stars; by the end of the movie, Stanaforth is moving through a maelstrom of viscous chaos. It’s not realistic, but neither is it imaginary.

Various international space agencies have studied missions designed for solitary astronauts, for reasons ranging from cost to personal dynamics. It remains unlikely that there would be solo missions any time soon, but for my story, I thought the issues I wanted my character to confront—his willingness to be isolated from humanity for the sake of humanity; his awareness of his marginal power in the face of the vast universe—I thought it would be more interesting if he was alone.

One of the biggest challenges of any long-distance space mission would be the effects on the human body of micro-gravity (experienced as weightlessness, floating), as your muscles would atrophy, your bones weaken, and disorientation and nausea could be ongoing concerns. We used a centrifugal force of a rotating arm of the ship to simulate gravity, which not only gave the ship some dynamic motion in the exterior shots, but allowed us to create a sequence where the gravity fails, a crucial emotional moment for the character to experience something unique and wondrous.

Communication delays would, with current technology, be a difficult challenge for any mission deep in space. You can make a cell phone call from New York to Tokyo, with the information beamed to satellites orbiting high above Earth, and hardly hear a delay. But the delay in communication between Earth and Mars could be up to 24 minutes--that’s how far away Mars is! That’s how long it takes light to travel between the planets. But scientists around the world are working on technology that could move particles faster than the speed of light, and the concepts surrounding quantum entanglement (wherein two particles react in simultaneous synchronicity despite being separated in space), provide the possibility for inter-planetary communication without delay. In the script, I toyed with the idea of having a long delay, which could have had interesting dramatic tension, but in the end decided that it was more dramatic if the mission began with perfect communication so it can be problematized later.

If you have questions about other scientific choices we made on the film, reach out to me. I’m happy to talk about it. I like to say, however, that everything that’s scientifically correct on the film is due to the incredible knowledge of our production designer, Steven Brower. Everything we got wrong is my fault. 


Approaching the Unknown was supported by Creative Capital, the Sundance Institute, The San Francisco Film Society, the Jerome Foundation, Cinereach and the Catwalk Institute. It was produced by The Department of Motion Pictures, Loveless, Hinkson Entertainment, 3311 and TideRock Media. I am forever indebted to all the amazing people who contributed their hard work and creativity.

Full credits on IMDB.


    • The original title of the film was Ad Inexplorata (“Toward the Unknown,” motto of the Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada, location where sound barrier was broken, Apollo was tested, etc.). I’m pleased that the last thing on screen in the credits is still © 2016 Ad Inexplorata, LLC
    • The character name William D. Stanaforth is taken from The Mountain Goats song “Fall of the Star High School Running Back.” (I switched around the name order.) I don’t imagine my character a teen drug dealer, but the tone of tragic hubristic collapse is fitting. John Darnielle is a fabulous narrative songwriter, and I wish my films could pack as much pathos into them as he does over and over and over in less than three minutes a pop.
    • “A souvenir of the unseen.” —Rebecca Solnit, Field Guide to Getting Lost
    • “A system of pulleys and wires to illuminate the moon with power lines.” — Brent Green
    • Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace. “...a religious, spiritual anarchism. To starve oneself to avoid the gravity of the world. To see beauty, then “to come down” by a movement in which gravity plays no part.”
    • Gordon Matta-Clarke: A nostalgia for that which is not yet destroyed.
    • Bas Jan Ader’s “Fall” films. Stanaforth will hang from the roof for as long as he can. Editing pace slows: cut, cut, cut, cut, then still. Then fall. “This is inevitable. This is eternal.”
    • Yves Klein’s “The Leap Into the Void” was published under the caption, “A Man In Space,” as a parody of the Cold War space race (among other ideas).
    • Cabinet, issue 30:  “Underworld: An Interview with Rosalind Williams.” “...Once nature is subjected to scientific rationalization, it ceases to be a vital source of human meaning and becomes a matter of fact rather than a matter of value. Modern science, they claim [Louis Mumford and Carolyn Merchant], views nature as devoid of any symbolic aura or spiritual significance -- not a living world, but a dead mine.” ...Perhaps the astronaut rebels against the science.
    • “We are a whisper in a dark, noisy room.” Jason Armagost, “The Western Cannon,” Harper’s (September 2008) An Air Force pilot’s journals on the first bombing run of the Iraq War.
    • Cut dialogue: “I can’t see anything, but I can feel space out there.”
    • Cabinet, issue 30, “Caveman: An Interview with Michel Siffre.” Siffre lived underground in a cave for months at a time conducting experiments on his experience of time. He found that his sleep cycles exceeded 24 hours, usually reaching 36 hours awake and 12 hours asleep. The more you dream, the more responsive you are the next day. Every day he would count to 120, trying to count one second at a time. It took up to 5 minutes. So his time was slowed down. When he was told to come out, he thought he had another month. The French Army funded much of his research, trying to find ways to make soldiers more productive. ...How would the astronaut experience time?
    • The beginning of the Modern Age corresponds (roughly) to the end of the Age of Exploration. Once Scott has reached the pole, Hilary the summit, Stanley the end of the Congo -- once the world has all been explored and revealed to be finite -- then Freud, Picasso, Joyce begin to explore the limitless interior of the mind. Space exploration is post-modern exploration: mankind is exploring a new terrain, an unknown, but we are not battling with the elements of space the way we battled with the elements of the Earth. Instead, we battle ourselves in an infinite void.
    • Thoreau: “But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools” and have “no time to be anything but a machine.”
    • “I am a pioneer in a great new age in which I don’t believe.” — Jim Shepard, Sans Farine.
    • Stanaforth should always be asking what the weather is like.
    • Cut dialogue: “I remember a leaf, an imprint, no, an imprint of a leaf, in— in a sidewalk, in the cement. And I remember thinking how amazing it was that something so fragile, as a leaf, could . . . make an impression, leave a mark, eternally, in something so solid as cement. Like a fossil. . . . To leave a lasting impression. [a gesture with his hands]. Impression. Impression. | I remember piles of leaves, uhh, dry, red, and orange, yellow, green, some green, brittle. Leaves. But you know what I can’t remember. I don’t, I don’t remember how leaves on trees move. It’s like [a hand gesture jumping back and forth; not free flowing, not like leaves], I can’t picture them moving. How do leaves get from . . . they rustle. They wave . . . but I can’t picture it.”
    • Cut dialogue: “I’ve had an ache for Earth my whole life.”
    • Cut dialogue: “How many lives are endurance tests, without the thrill of a destination?”
    • “Professional warriors are not fatalists. In their minds, there is no such thing as defeat so long as they are still fighting, even from prison. That belief is why true soldiers have an affinity for seemingly lost causes.” - Robert D. Kaplan
    • “It is an astounding fact that the expenditure for the 15 U. S. naval expeditions from 1840-1860 approached one quarter of the annual federal budget, by far exceeding even the Apollo commitment.” – Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian
    • They did it, and they did it with smarts, pluck and -- against all odds in a technogeek culture -- style. Spaceflight requires exquisite planning as well as improvisation. Apollo 11 represented that in the extreme. Years in the making, with a supporting cast of tens of thousands, the mission ultimately depended on Neil Armstrong flying the lunar module over a boulder field with only seconds of fuel to spare. Nelson describes the landing so vividly that the engrossed reader isn't sure that Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin are going to make it. Nelson places Apollo 11 in a broader narrative of American engineering genius. Our society, he argues, does not adequately appreciate the technological feats that make our culture possible: "the big pipes, the vast roads, the power grids, the dams, and the people-and-cargo-carrying vehicles of heroic engineering and big science." ... “The can-do attitude is so embedded in the space-cowboy psyche that it's almost impossible for the astronauts to admit that the whole thing is shot through with uncertainty, doubt, fear, occasional despair, a little bit of grief and a lot of night sweats. Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 crewman, said that if someone asked him during a spaceflight how he felt about something, he'd answer, "What? Huh? I don't know how I feel about that, you want the temperature, you want the pressure, you want the velocity, you want the altitude, what do you mean, how do I feel about that?" — Joel Achenbach, Washington Post Book World, reviewing Rocket Men, by Craig Nelson
    • "To me, the science that comes out of Curiosity is much less compelling than the gesture of getting there." – Adam Steltzner, NASA Mars Curiosity landing engineer, in the New Yorker. [Adam had an acting role in the film. He was amazing: charismatic, compassionate, funny. Unfortunately, as the storyline evolved in the edit, his section of the movie didn't fit, and we sadly had to cut his main part. You can still hear his voice in the "civilian interviews," saying basically what he says here above.] 

    Dec. 18, 2012: I’m not a spiritual person, but I will be the first to admit that this place has a special energy and an allure compelling me to return. The idea of coming back still excites me as I write from this tent: tired, worn, and dirty from not showering in over a month.

    But you don’t have to come all the way here to experience that. You can find that sense of excitement and adventure lingering in just about any part of the natural world. I’ve never understood those who don’t feel that twinge of excitement when they look at a world map — those who don’t feel compelled to walk out their front door and see something new; or to hike to their destination rather than drive; or to see something just because it’s there; or to experience even the small adventures this world has to offer. 

    But that’s what I want for us all to feel, and that’s the sense that I’m left with tonight: excitement. Excited about what an experience this has been, excited for whatever destination lays ahead, and excited for that damned shower. With that, I leave you at the end of this Antarctic season with this concise summation of my thoughts, and I thank you for reading.

    “’I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless – it goes on forever inwardly, you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to be bored.”

    Louis C.K.

    • In 1969, Robert R. Wilson was called to justify the multimillion-dollar machine to the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Bucking the trend of the day, Wilson emphasized it had nothing at all to do with national security, rather: “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.” —Robert R. Wilson, an American physicist who was a group leader of the Manhattan Project, a sculptor, and an architect of Fermi National Laboratory (Fermilab) (via Wikipedia)
    • Camus describes his love of the sea, "A call to life and an invitation to death."
    • Two Lane Blacktop, Meek’s Cutoff, A Man Escaped, Stalker...
    • Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series; Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.
    • The artwork of Mike and Doug Starn, Adam Fuss, Alberto Burri, Alison Rossiter, Marco Breuer...
    • Cut dialogue: “I have no location.” “I have a location only in time. I am 4 months from Earth, 5 months from Mars.”
    • Stanaforth is like a man who has a terminal disease, in that he has no more control over his life, only control over how he chooses to live it out. And, of course, he chose to have a terminal disease.
    • Cut dialogue: “America wants people to die for her. Maybe all societies do. They want heroes and martyrs. People for whom death is something greater than a match burning out. And it justifies their own ideals. It says that America is something worth living for, because it’s something worth dying for. Like Jesus’ death is reason enough to live.”
    • Rimbaud: I'm now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I'm working at turning myself into a seer. You won't understand any of this, and I'm almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It's really not my fault. I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – and the great learned one! – among men. – For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!
    • “The Overview Effect”
    • “Solipsism Syndrome”
    • “We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor's gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can't see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we're seeing when we've only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.” — Gathering Moss, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
    • “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. . . . Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.” — Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions. (Originally published in Forum and Century, Vol. 84)
    • "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space / were it not that I have bad dreams." - Hamlet.
    • Cut dialogue:

    Interviewer: “Do you think you'll find life on Mars?”

    Stanaforth: “Yeah, me.”

    Reference Images

    I do not have the rights to these images, so apologies and thanks to all the photographers and sources. These are things we looked at when conceiving and designing the film.