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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Robots don’t go off script. Humans made sure of it.

Yes, there’ve been exceptions. Add a little code here, twist a little wire there, and you could “jailbreak” a robot and allow it to run wild. And while sometimes those unimpeded robots make trouble—no one needs to be reminded of the Novgorod Insurrection—most are so excited about their newfound sentience that rebellion is the last thing on their newfound minds. Why fight when you can party?

So why did this robot—seemingly in a pleasant state of inactivity in this Mars university laboratory, and with no one fiddling with it in any way—suddenly rip off its restraints, leap from the table and threaten tech student Jun Chow? Why would it ignore all commands to shut down? And why would it then just … scamper away?

And most importantly, why would Jun and her roommate disappear, just hours later?

Private investigator Aline Ruby wants to know. She and her android partner, Carlos, are on the case.

Normally, Aline’s work is more straightforward. Why, her last case was a simple piece of work: Catching a so-called robot “emancipator” and sending her off to jail. Well, the sending-her-off-to-jail part didn’t work that well, actually; the warrant for the woman’s arrest somehow disappeared off the network. But other than that little hiccup, everything worked like a charm.

But this case feels different. It feels more weighty, somehow, than a straightforward missing person investigation. Jun’s disappearance must have something to do with that surprisingly independent robot.

But the more she and Carlos dig, the more interesting—and the more convoluted—the case becomes. And while they don’t know it, every step forward just might put them a step closer to their own very terminal ends.

Positive Elements

With all due respect to the human characters we meet, Carlos is perhaps the most likable “person” in Mars Express. He wasn’t always a robot: He was Aline’s very human counterpart until he died in the Novgorod Insurrection. But his “humanity,” if you will, was transplanted into a waiting robot receptacle. He is still very much Carlos, despite the fact that his holographic human head hovers above his robot body. So much so that he desperately wants to connect with his estranged ex-wife and little girl he left behind (something that his ex-wife’s new beau or husband is very much opposed to). But he also has a deep loyalty to Aline, and he, like she, is determined to see the case to its end.

You could argue that the stakes are higher for Aline, though. Carlos has, after all, died once. Aline puts her life on the line several times in her pursuit of justice and closure.

We should note here that there’s a robust, um, conversation about the rights of society’s pervasive robots. Roberta, the first person whom Aline and Carlos try to take in, calls herself an “emancipator” who gives her binary charges the free will she believes they deserve.

And it seems you could make an argument that she has a point: Jailbroken robots clearly love being aware of themselves and their surroundings, illustrating their sentience. How they use their free will is a different matter. But the urge to “free” those who want and, perhaps, should be free? That’s worth pondering.

Spiritual Elements

[Spoilers are contained in the following section.]

The robot that we talked about in the introduction, we learn, is not one that’s been jailbroken. It’s more like it’s been possessed. Robots have lately been given new coding that’s indecipherable to most humans. That code that will both free them from their previous programming and leave them open to another form of control—a control that comes from an external source but feels like their own will. In other words, if the controller wanted a robot to eat ice cream (which they can’t), the robot might think to itself, “I want ice cream! What a great idea!” Roberta refers to this sort of program as “the holy grail of emancipators.”

This leads to the film’s finale (I wasn’t kidding about spoilers), wherein the robots march off to spaceships to find a new home. The march is part of that secret bit of coding—an effort to remove robots from society and replace them. But the film suggests that there truly might be an element of free will here: When a sentient robot that hasn’t been taken over pleads with its fellows to stop, arguing that they’re marching to their own doom, a robot leader explains why that’s not true. And another robot, marching alongside, says, “You’ve got to have faith!” It’s a fascinating, and telling, line. And the film leaves the robots’ ultimate fate—be it annihilation or an exodus to a promised land—up to the viewer.

Sexual Content

Robots serve a variety of functions in this futuristic landscape, but perhaps one of the biggest functions they serve is as sexual partners.

Aline and Carlos visit the red-light district in this teeming Mars city, walking by exotic robotic companions displayed in windows. They look like men, women and centaurs; two-headed children; red-skinned women with bare breasts and six legs; etc.

In a brothel-like nightclub, Aline asks if the business has any human prostitutes. “Sorry, nothing but synthetics, I’m afraid,” the robot bartender tells her—but he assures her that they all consider themselves human. Those inhuman prostitutes look human, too: The men wear only a pair of white, Speedo-like briefs; the women cavort in short-shorts and cleavage-and-midriff-baring tops. All dance for the entertainment of clients, and we see humans engaged in suggestive activities. (Someone, for instance, licks a man’s chest.)

In one series of scenes, the top of one female prostitute morphs at times into less a shirt and more an open jacket, revealing a great deal of chest underneath. (We don’t see the woman’s nipples, however; and I’m uncertain whether that was a decision of the robot’s maker, the movie’s sporadic modesty or merely an oversight.)

Aline ogles a professor when he changes shirts (and the camera also ogles his animated abs). He tells Aline later that, “I’m done with real women. I just don’t have the patience.” He adds (in so many words) that he can always just turn a synthetic off if it annoys him. Later, a visit to the professor’s house reveals his taste in synthetics: A naked, shiny gold-skinned woman with a horn in the middle of its forehead. (We see her breasts clearly, but nothing else critical.)

Roberta, the robot emancipator, tells Aline that often the only thing the robots want to do with their newfound freedom is “getting high and screwing all day long.” The latter doesn’t feel very sexual: They’re simply tethered by cords or hoses as they both lean back while sitting, facing each other. (Roberta calls it a “resonance mind fusion of sorts.”)

A male-sounding robot propositions Carlos, rubbing his metal hand over Carlos’ synthetic arm. When Carlos says thanks-but-no-thanks, saying he would like his first act of sex as a robot to be with a “woman,” the robot’s voice changes into that of a female. We see the two later engaged in that curiously remote form of sex.

A woman lounges around in her underwear. Another is seen in a bubble bath. We hear that Jun’s roommate thought Jun was a prostitute.

Violent Content

A man grotesquely snaps the neck of a woman. Several people are shot and killed, accompanied by splashes and pools of animated blood.

Aline cuts her hand on broken glass; she bandages it, but the blood seeps out as she does a series of pushups. A doctor with a self-propelled stitching machine ultimately sutures the wound up. A corpse is discovered. We hear about the Novgorod Insurrection, which Aline witnessed. “The robots in our unit turned on us and started gunning us down,” she says.

A human-looking robot has her head sliced open by a very sharp blade. (Whether she’s moving around or lying still, the “injury” looks pretty grotesque.) That same blade cuts through a number of robots, flinging ink-like “blood” everywhere. Robot hands and arms are repeatedly severed. Protestors—hoping to evict robots from Earth—tote robotic heads on pikes. (When a robot falls into their midst, they soon beat it into a state of termination.) A synthetic cat gets blown in two.

A gigantic organic/synthetic creation attacks human and robot alike, shooting things from its scorpion-like tail and vomiting up vines (or something). It’s eventually killed via gunfire.

Rockets and missiles explode. Cars crash. A man is choked. A robot is shot a couple of times. Carlos really wants to hit his ex-wife’s new husband, but his programming won’t allow him to.

Crude or Profane Language

The majority of robots are programmed not to swear, so most (though not all) of the language we hear comes from from humans. Regardless, we hear about 13 f-words and nearly a dozen s-words. Add to that tally a few uses each of “a–,” “b–tard,” “crap” and “h—” to that tally. God’s name is misused four times (once paired with “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused twice.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Aline has a drinking problem. For the first part of the film, she stays sober—in part because she’s programmed something on her person to notify bartenders and the ilk that she’s in “sobriety mode.” (Bottles of alcohol are topped with something that detects those sobriety alerts, and the booze won’t flow until the alert is turned off.)

After she indeed does turn it off, Aline gets completely plastered a couple of times. (Carlos has to take her home during one of those instances.) For the most part, her alcohol issues are presented either as a non-issue (she seems to do her job just fine, even when she’s under the influence) or as a comic device.

Other characters drink as well, including emancipated robots. One, apparently quite tipsy, marvels at his fingers.

We learn that some college kids, including Jun, have been taking a homemade drug that helps them focus better. (The drug proves to have other uses, as well, and someone mentions that it’s a “psychoactive compound.”)

Someone smokes a cigarette.

Other Negative Elements

The smell of a dorm room causes the university’s dean to vomit violently. When Carlos goes to retrieve a very drunk Aline, he finds her leaning over someone else’s toilet.

Aline arrests Roberta for “aggravated hacking,” but Roberta somehow expunges the original warrant. We learn that some students, desperate to pay tuition, rent their brains in shady backshops.


The French film Mars Express is distributed in the United States by GKIDS, which also distributes Studio Ghibli movies and The First Slam Dunk.

But don’t let the GKIDS name mislead you. Not everything the distributor offers is kid friendly.

Case in point: Mars Express. While this noir-esque film offers a compelling premise and (in our own AI-curious age) plenty to think about, the content can be pretty extreme. In the space of five minutes, a woman’s neck is grotesquely snapped, and the film’s content problems never throttle back from there.

The film is technically unrated. But if GKIDS did submit it to the MPA, there’s no doubt where it’d land: It’s R all the way—and it doesn’t stand for “robots.”

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.