“Mars Express” turns out to be one of those movies that takes in every aspect of the cyberpunk noir genre and creates a new story while focusing on developing a newer world. It would be a fool’s errand to wonder whether “Mars Express” becomes another touchstone for the cyberpunk genre, but considering the scarcity of movies being tackled in this genre in either live-action or animated, this movie feels like a breath of fresh air.

Mars Express (2024) Plot Summary:

A Murder, a Chase, and a Jailbreak: What Connects Them All?

The movie opens with two seemingly disconnected events occurring almost simultaneously. University student and hacker Jun Chow is seemingly murdered by an android in her dormitory room. Back on Earth, which has become a “swamp for the unemployed,” Mars-based detective Aline Ruby and her android partner Carlos Riviera are after a notorious hacker named Roberta. Carlos, himself a casualty of a war called the Novigrad insurrection and now having his memories transferred inside an exoskeleton while a hologram of his head floats on top, poses as Roberta’s new customer.

The purpose here is for Roberta to jailbreak robots—a process where the robot would be granted free will without the induced limitations imprinted upon them by inception. The chase between Aline and Roberta concludes with a sleek action sequence. Later, while explaining to Chris Royjacker, the businessman who had hired her to search for Roberta, she is ordered by Royjacker to wind down and enjoy herself. And Carlos ultimately manages to capture Roberta, though that comes with Asimov-like programming subroutines that immediately disconnect him and render him immobile (or which stopped him directly punching his ex-wife’s husband in frustration, as his ex-wife has forbidden him to see their kid).

Back on Mars, after having traveled via the “Mars Express” train, Roberta’s warrant is suspiciously deleted from the police files, leading to Aline and Carlos reluctantly letting Roberta go. While trying to explain to Chris Royjacker, the businessman who had hired her to search for Roberta, she is ordered by Royjacker to wind down and enjoy.

What was Jun Chow hiding?

However, that comes for naught, as Jun Chow’s disappearance soon captures Aline’s attention. On investigating her laboratory at the Alan Turing Campus, Aline sees via hologram reconstruction that Jun had accidentally managed to jailbreak a robot while working on its internal schematics. Jailbreaking a robot was illegal in the year 2200, and for that, the police had been after her. Upon investigating Chow’s room, Aline finds homemade pills akin to Adderall. She and Carlos also locate Chow’s unfortunate roommate, who had been murdered in the opening sequence of the movie.

Meanwhile, the police also located the android that Jun had unfortunately hacked. Located beneath the bowels of the Mars civilization, both Aline and Homicide Inspector Simon Gardaux are stunned to find the robot, having gained sentience, had been redecorating the stone walls with runes and trying to seemingly build an aircraft to escape in the nothingness of space before being destroyed.

In trying to investigate that thread, mainly by questioning her professor as well as through trace dialogues by Jun’s parents, we learn that Jun Chow had been trying to pay her tuition bills by resorting to sex work. As it turns out, synthetic sex work or androids designed as sex workers are all the rage on Mars. While investigating, both Aline and Carlos locate Chow, hard at work repairing one of the synthetic sex workers. As it turns out, while Carlos manages to catch the real Chow (and promptly gets disconnected), the android escaping would be Chow’s backup, which Aline manages to capture.

Who ordered Jun Chow to be murdered?

A still from Mars Express (2024)
A still from “Mars Express” (2024)

Upon questioning the two Chows and learning that a police officer had killed her roommate, Dominique, they are attacked by augmented humans. One of those augmented humans cuts android Chow’s head into a maw while the rest chase Aline and Chow down. Before they could escape, Chow was shot down by the rest of the group that had been lying in wait. Chow’s death hits Aline pretty hard, forcing her to break her sobriety.

While at the funeral of Dominique, Aline and Carlos realize that the augmented human had taken the disguise of Dominique’s father to gain access to her room before murdering her. Realizing that they both are out of their depth, they take the aid of the hacker they had been chasing previously, Roberta, and her robot aid, LEM. After watching the video of Chow’s android being jailbroken, Roberta reveals that this is different from typical jailbreaking but is more akin to a software takeover.

A software takeover entails a directive being installed that would order these machines to act upon anything, even erasing all their prime directives, and such a software takeover would be transmissible between all robots. Roberta also reveals that Royjacker had been responsible. When they had been chasing Roberta in the opening sequence, they thought Roberta had hacked into Royajacker’s server, but it had been the other way around. As Aline waits for Royjacker at his party, he gets a message via mind-link from Carlos, revealing that Royjacker had ordered Jun Chow’s murder.

Why was Jun Chow murdered?

To complete Roberta’s incomplete software takeover program, Royjacker outsourced it to brain farms. Jun had taken on the job through there, and all the memories of the software programming would be sent via stream to Royjacker. Investigating one of those brain farmers resolves one aspect of the puzzle, but the psychoactive drug that Jun had been taking for exam purposes had the adverse side effect of reconstituting the memories that had already been erased.

While the investigation is underway, Aline and Carlos are attacked mid-travel by the jailbroken androids. Carlos manages to save Aline at the last second while Aline is being extracted out of the foam mesh in her collided vehicle. Their NOCTIS police station infiltration to fix Chow’s android put Aline at risk of suspension and Carlos getting decommissioned.

Managing to turn Android Chow on after knocking Inspector Gardaux out, Aline requests Android Chow to recall the events when she had launched the code. As it turns out, she manages to recall the code, which is what happened when human Chow, while working on her android, accidentally recalled the code as a result of the drug and wrote and executed it in the process. Realizing that Chow remembers the code made her a loose end, and thus Royjacker had her murdered, though he might not have been acting alone.

Mars Express (2024) Ending Explained:

How does the robot uprising begin?

Before Aline is arrested and imprisoned, her final conversation with robot Chow reveals that the newer robots, which had all been created by Royjacker, had the takeover code hidden beneath their last update. As a result, the takeover code is currently hidden beneath their source code and will be launched at 6 p.m. Aline tries to convince the interrogator, but they don’t believe her. However, Gardaux later removes her restraints.

Five minutes before the clock strikes 6, Aline is visited by Royjacker’s AI robot and Aline’s friend Beryl. We are led to believe that Beryl shares a similar form of personal connection that Royjacker, Aline, and Carlos share as well since they were comrades during the Novigrad incursion. Beryl tries to convince Aline not to believe all the propaganda against the robots before disappearing. As the clock strikes 6, the robot uprising begins, with a riot occurring inside the police station. In the middle of the robot exodus, the android Chow breaks open the door to Aline’s interrogation room.

Meanwhile, Carlos, who had been in the middle of disassembly, is also turned on. However, because his exoskeleton is an older model, the update containing the software takeover hadn’t been installed. Thus, he isn’t joining the robot exodus, instead choosing to follow Aline to Royjacker’s mansion, as the idyllic society of Mars, hidden beneath giant domes that cloak the darkness of space, slowly starts to fall apart. While Aline and Carlos try to break into Royjacker’s mansion, Aline is thrown towards the top floor by Carlos, and Carlos begins fighting with the organic super-soldier AI in the courtyard, in a sequence very much calling back to the climactic fight in Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell.”

Does Aline die?

While Carlos is busy with the four-legged monster, Aline has Royjacker in a chokehold, gun pointed at the temple. His soldiers look on dispassionately, guns raised. Royjacker reveals that the takeover was to remove the robots once and for all. Their replacements would be organic AI developed inside invertebrate organisms. The viewers would notice these organic AIs throughout the film, but Royjacker reveals that the software takeover would be a play to remove the competition, which is the actual androids.

A still from Mars Express (2024)
Another still from “Mars Express” (2024)

As the screens show a newsfeed describing the androids’ exodus, the giant television screen fills up with multiple video-conference screens, revealing Royjacker’s benefactors, who had given him the fund to research organic AI. Aline tries to mind-connect with Carlos, who finally manages to destroy the monster by burning its tentacled insides with the exoskeleton’s radioactive core, but he is too late to rescue Aline, who is shot by the soldier a second before Carlos arrives and disarms him.

Do the robots survive?

In the final few minutes, “Mars Express” becomes a form of ambiguous text. On both sides, the humans and the robots are coming to a violent impasse. For humans, it’s a chance to rebuild new AIs that aren’t at risk of gaining sentience by jailbreak or rogue software takeover due to their organic inmeshing. For the robots, it’s the chance to upload their core memories to a cloud that is stored inside the spaceship that Chow’s jailbroken android has been trying to build. Beryl, too, had been hard at work in the process and had managed to build a transport such that the robots would be able to create a civilization of their own via matter and energy that could be harnessed by all their core memories existing simultaneously inside a cloud server.

For Carlos, Aline being shot is the disconnection from any tether of humanity that he had before. He tries to reconnect with his ex-wife but is met by shotgun blasts from her husband. He finally tries to vent out his frustration by chokeholding the husband but is stopped by the reflection of his daughter through the hologrammatic reconstruction of his head. This, coupled with the fact that Aline is shot at the hip and bleeding profusely, makes him embrace his robot identity, and he joins in that exodus, finally giving up his soul to the ether-resembling cloud as the spaceship finally launches itself into deep space, leaving humanity behind to pick up the pieces of their own destruction.

Mars Express (2024) Review:

The best of cyberpunk always tries to strike as well as show the balance between technology and humanity and the dilemma resulting from co-existence. The closest one attains in these universes as a result of co-existence would be varied forms of post-humanism: humanity either augments itself with technology, partially by utilizing mind speak, or installs connecting jacks to interconnect with hubs and devices seamlessly or completely backs up their memories in android bodies, thus forcing them to exist at the intersection of humans and machines. This brings to life the question of what ultimately constitutes humanity. If memory is the answer and duplication of said memory is possible, then would the android armed with the memories of the human being also constitute a soul similar to its source?

For those willing to delve deeper, Perein’s “Mars Express” echoes the themes of sentience, identity, and artificial intelligence explored in “Ghost in the Shell,” “Blade Runner,” and Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” The Oshii influence is striking even in some of the set pieces, from the opening action sequence to the finale between Carlos and the organic AI-infused monster. However, the difference lies more in what the storyteller ultimately chooses to luxuriate his eye on and, as a result, his storyboard.

Perein is less invested in the philosophical discussion behind the ideas situated in the story itself—the class divide between robots and humans—and more in the world and how technological advancements would be utilized in the banalest of proceedings or in the evolution of human expression and physicality. This banality extends within the conversations—between Aline and her android partner Carlos or between hacker Roberta Williams and her sleek humanoid robot companion LEM. It’s these banalities and the exploration of the human condition with less portentousness and more nonchalance that contribute to the unique tonality.

Despite this, “Mars Express” still operates very much within the neo-noir genre. But Perein never shies away from the visceral and basic enjoyment of these animated stories. To underestimate the power of a “cool” image would be to take away the engagement of a viewer from a fun action sequence or a visual unique enough in its perspective that it becomes harder to recall something similar, even for the most ardent of sci-fi fans. Perein thus also focuses on the solution of the investigation, choosing a suitably overcooked plot but with enough propulsion in the pace that the script doesn’t delve deep enough into the plot mechanics or the specificities of how one event connects specifically with the next.

The smooth, sleek animation by Mikael Robert and the synth-heavy score by Philip Monthaye and Fred Avril help to tide over these fallacies. The overall denouement of the investigation might feel a tad bit trivial, but the encapsulation of all the events coalescing produces a larger impact, especially within the final ten minutes of the film. It feels emotionally too heavy considering the banality the movie chooses to incorporate throughout its runtime, but that doesn’t take away from the movie ultimately choosing to tackle the paranoia of the current AI-led commercial space. Perein, thankfully, is humble enough not to provide a definitive answer, merely choosing to extrapolate what could happen.

Read More: The 25 Best Animated Movies of All Time


Mars Express (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Cast of Mars Express (2024) Movie: Léa Drucker, Mathieu Amalric, Daniel Njo Lobé, Marie Bouvet, Sébastien Chassagne, Marthe Keller
Mars Express (2024) Movie Genre: Sci-Fi/Animation/Mystery & Thriller | Runtime: 1h 28m
Where to watch Mars Express

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