Protagonist Aline Ruby. Image courtesy of mk2 Films

Mars Express is the kind of movie that would have killed it on home video 20 years ago. I can imagine it: stumbling into a shady DVD store inside a strip mall of dubious repute, roaming the steel-link rows of shelves before chancing on a single copy nestled between porno flicks. The description is all in French, but the art style immediately catches the eye, and the forums are raving about it. You watch it later that night and even though the subtitles raise eyebrows, you know you’ve found something special.

It’s a little shocking that a movie like Mars Express even exists in this day and age. It’s a foreign animated film for adults. It’s an original sci-fi story not based on any existing media property. It’s a directorial debut from an animator who cut his teeth on edgy YouTube series. It’s almost certainly going to get clobbered at the domestic box office – which is a shame if you ask me – because it’s a once-in-a-Martian-decade kind of film.

Mars Express follows snow-haired P.I. Aline Ruby and her android partner Carlos Rivera, both of whom pay the bills catching fugitives. She’s a war vet, a recovering alcoholic and megacorp CEO Chris Royjacker’s favorite agent. He’s also a war vet, but didn’t make it back from deployment – Rivera is a “backup,” a robotic replica of a deceased person. Fresh off a botched bounty-hunting job, the two are tasked with tracking down a missing cybernetics student suspected to be involved in “jailbreaking” androids (circumventing the programming that keeps them subservient to humans). When shapeshifting assassins and nefarious corporate figures get involved, they realize that they’ve stumbled upon a system-wide conspiracy.

The film packs a big story in a small package. The noir plot really serves as a skeleton supported by heady philosophical concepts such as the nature of technology and its purpose in an advanced society. Humans protest robotic rights in the streets, pundits debate android sentience on television and the line between subservience and freedom is blurred. If all that seems a bit tropey, it’s true. Mars Express wears its influences on its sleeve. Chief among them is the cyberpunk anime classic Ghost in the Shell, also featuring techno-mysteries and androids with a tendency to wax poetic. Mars Express even features a climactic gun battle with a quadrupedal battle tank like the iconic scene in Ghost in the Shell. Mars Express’ interrogations don’t quite reach the provocative heights of Ghost in the Shell, but I do think it’s the more accessible of the two films thanks to its more concrete arguments.

Mars Express’ visuals are a big part of its appeal. The robots have varied eye-catching designs, and the Martian environment is vibrant and bright, in stark contrast to the dark gloominess of, say, Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. The art style isn’t quite anime, existing in the liminal space between realism and playfulness that makes its sci-fi world pop. Some visual highlights include a simultaneous interrogation of a human and her identical illegal backup, window shopping in a mechanized red light district and the grotesque menagerie of biological androids that the corporations market as the replacements for robots. Rivera’s design is especially memorable. His body is obviously robotic, but his human face is a projected hologram, giving him an expressiveness other android characters lack without undermining his status as a robotic being. Of the two principal characters, Rivera is the more interesting, and he serves to ground the film’s more abstract ideas. I wouldn’t call Ruby’s character flat, per se, but she functions more to propel the plot, whereas Rivera propels the film’s major themes. With these established characters and their minimalist backstories, Mars Express doesn’t overburden viewers with worldbuilding or exposition, but instead gradually drip-feeds us with insights into the attitudes and politics of its world that might not be so different from our own.

Despite its conventional structure, Mars Express is one of the most surprising films I’ve seen in a while. Action sequences are sparse, but keep the film moving briskly. The final act of the film is explosive and unexpected, essentially surrendering its characters to a conclusion that’s as mystifying as it is majestic. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a comedown that lodges itself firmly in the mind with the help of beautiful imagery and dramatic implications that beg questions about our own future, especially amidst the meteoric rise of AI and robotics.

Mars Express is by all accounts a conceptual film, and even if its emotional payoff isn’t quite as strong as its psychological one, its ambition and style are worthy of significant applause. Most of all, I’m glad Mars Express exists. I have a sneaking suspicion it will slip into cult-classic territory within the next few years, and even if the DVD is dead, the film exudes a confident energy that earns it its place among the stars.