A couple years ago, I remember watching First Man, Ryan Gosling’s Apollo 11 epic, and being struck by a particular scene. In it, Neil Armstrong rises early, kisses his sleeping children, picks up a suitcase, and heads off for the fucking moon. It was absolutely surreal. As a kid, I’d always imagined the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were grown in chambers, like Captain America. Even their names–Buzz Aldrin, Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong–sounded like superhero aliases you could slap right on a Wheaties box. But here was Armstrong, out in Ward Cleaver’s suburbia, looking like a man who was about to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door. It really drove home the idea that these were people who came from somewhere.
Proxima takes the sentiment behind that scene and builds an entire movie around it. Set sometime in the not-so-distant future, Sarah (Eva Green) gets selected for a three-person mission to Mars. This journey will be even more laden with peril than the Apollo missions ever were. It’s a trip of months, not days. Deep space will ravage the body in ways we don’t fully understand. Any disaster will likely occur beyond any hope of rescue.
Like Armstrong before her, Sarah takes on this once-in-a-lifetime assignment with a heavy combination of exhilaration and dread. Her seven-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) struggles with schoolwork and socializing. Add anxiety over Sarah’s new mission to the mix and you have a child at a critical juncture in her life. This puts Sarah in a bind on two fronts: In the short term, she’ll have to soothe Stella’s growing pains from millions of miles away and hope that her daughter doesn’t permanently resent her absence. On a much larger scale, Sara must confront the sobering idea that she’s one malfunction, one tiny human error away from never seeing Stella again.
The movie intercuts this mother-daughter dynamic with Right Stuff-style sequences of Sarah preparing for the rigors of space travel. You’ve seen this in a dozen other movies: Sarah gets spun around in a giant centrifuge. Then she runs on a treadmill with a bajillion little wires hooked up to her. Oh yeah, there’s an underwater simulation, too. I get that you can’t make a movie like this without, you know, space stuff. But, Proxima doesn’t really break any new ground in this area, and it threatens to make a strong drama become bland and conventional.
That goes ditto for a subplot concerning Sarah’s mission commander, played by Matt Dillon. He’s a swaggering American douche who tries to hamstring Sarah with misogynistic claptrap, while also undermining her in front of the other crew. This has become such a movie trope that the real act of bravery would be to not have Dillon’s character be a complete prick. The filmmakers try to add some human dimensions to him eventually, but it’s too little, too late. Once again, this sticks out like a sore thumb, and it weakens the whole movie.
Okay, I feel like I’ve dumped on Proxima enough. It has plenty of strengths: Green turns in an outstanding, award-calibre performance as Sarah. She’s brilliant, ferociously motivated, introspective, and level-headed–everything you’d want in a space-faring heroine. Boulant-Lemesle is a gifted natural performer, and she has phenomenal chemistry with Green. When this movie does succeed, it does so on the skill of these two performers.
That’s not to take away from director/co-writer Alice Winocour. She has a strong ear for dialogue, especially in these mother-daughter scenes. Winocour also spares us from torrents of technobabble, thus making the space sequences easier to follow.
Despite its premise, Proxima is a quiet film. People expecting big Apollo 13 moments will be disappointed. Like other space-based movies, this one shows the determination and sheer grit needed to be someone who does something like this. But we also see the hesitation, the fear, and the self-doubt that make them more like us. As with that scene in First Man, Proxima isn’t so much concerned with where this astronaut is going, but with everything she’ll leave behind.
107 min. NR.