Our heroes take a trip to find a robot prostitute in "Mars Express." Courtesy Gebeka Films

I wasn’t looking for a French update of Ghost in the Shell, but now that one is playing this weekend at AMC Grapevine Mills, I’ll take it. The French have a long and sneaky good track record with animated movies, and Mars Express is a disquisition on artificial intelligence and whether robots can be human that’s wrapped up in a detective story to make it go down easy.

In the 23rd century, humans have colonized Mars and are now living there under biosphere domes. That’s where private investigator Aline Ruby (voiced by Léa Drucker in the original French version and Morla Gorrondona in the English-dubbed version) mostly works for the tech mogul and former army buddy (voiced by Mathieu Amalric and Kiff VandenHeuvel) who made life on Mars possible. However, when she takes on the case of a missing cybernetics student (voiced by Geneviève Doang and Jenapher Zheng), Aline finds damning information that could end human civilization.

This is the first feature by director/co-writer Jérémie Périn, who has done most of his work on French TV. He displays great flashes of creativity, especially when Ruby and her robot sidekick Carlos (voiced by Daniel Njo Lobé and Josh Keaton) venture into the red-light district in their city. Turns out that there are no human prostitutes anymore, and that robots handle all the sex work, which leads to some freaky perversions that you can’t even imagine, like the spider-woman who has six legs and red skin. (I really don’t want to meet the client who wants to have sex with the twins from The Shining.) The rest of the futuristic tech is cool, too, as when Aline appears to be standing next to the missing girl only for us to learn that she’s inside a hologram recording. It all makes up for the rather drab human characters. Action sequences cut the philosophy, and there are good ones when Aline and Carlos locate the missing student just in time to protect her from an assassin, and a freeway chase where the self-driving cars do nothing to take away from the suspense as hit men try to take out our heroes.


This being a debut feature, we probably should expect some stuff hanging loose. I’m not happy with the lack of closure for our heroine, and the subplot with Carlos trying to see the daughter that his old human self fathered doesn’t tug at our heartstrings like the filmmakers want it to. The identities of the villains won’t surprise you, either. Even so, whether you see Mars Express in the original French or in English, this crisp sci-fi adventure is a treat to look at, declaring a grown-up new talent for animation fans to ponder.

Mars Express
Voices by Léa Drucker, Morla Gorrondona, Daniel Njo Lobé, and Josh Keaton. Directed by Jérémie Périn. Written by Jérémie Périn and Laurent Sarfati. Not rated.