Dharamsala / Darius Films
“Ten, nine, eight, seven.” A child is riding on her mother’s back from the bathroom down the dark corridor. “Six, five, four.” They round the bedroom door. “Three, two, one, ignition and liftoff.” The seven year-old daughter is plonked in bed, beaming. “Liftoff of the Soyuz for the International Space Station”. Tucked in, teddy bear clutched and the routine continues. “First stage separation.” Kiss. “Second stage separation.” Kiss.
Proxima is not your average space movie. It’s one of the first serious-sized releases in newly reopened UK cinemas – released today on 140 screens alongside Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged and World War II drama Summerland – for those satisfied with cinema safety measures and local infection rates. Alice Winocour’s astronaut-in-training film trades Nasa for the ESA, Cape Canaveral for the Baikonur Cosmodrome and, most notably, the sometimes macho, sometimes brooding space dad for a meticulous, single-minded space mum with an eccentric bedtime routine.
In 1984, Nasa’s Anna Lee Fisher became the first mother in space, and The Terminator’s Sarah Connor asked: “do I look like the mother of the future?”. Since then, mums haven’t had the smoothest ride to fully-realised protagonist status in sci-fi and space cinema. In the most speculative film and TV stories, the focus is often on the child itself being some kind of a hero or demon, with The X-Files’ Dana Scully especially ill-served in this regard, and, as writer Sady Doyle outlines, “bad mothers” in particular are a crucial component of a lot of classic horror.
“In American cinema you have very strong women like Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Sandra Bullock in Gravity or Amy Adams in Arrival. In those films, there’s almost always a relationship with children,” says Winocour, the director and co-writer of Proxima. “But those children are dead.” (In 2019’s Lucy in the Sky, Natalie Portman’s troubled Nasa astronaut gets a niece.) It struck her that Hollywood script writers viewed having kids only as a weakness or something that would divert female characters from their goals: “I thought it was time for cinema to show women that had a mission and that had children.”
Like, a literal mission. But a fairly modest one, as fits the space movie rule breaking here. When we meet her, astronaut and engineer Sarah (Eva Green) is training to join a crew spending a year aboard the ISS, intentionally cut off from views of earth via shutters, as a practice run for future journeys to Mars. At the same time, she’s preparing her daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle, an excellent child actor) for the separation, while dealing with patronising American Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon), her unreliable astro-physicist ex-husband and an ESA appointed child psychologist.
Dharamsala / Darius Films
The director has cited Andrei Tarkovsky and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi as influences, and much of the film’s success comes from Winocour’s ability to mesh the cold, mechanical training processes and Tarkovsky-esque mood – aided by a Ryuichi Sakamoto score – with a core mother-daughter relationship that doesn’t feel tacked on or over-explained.
While the central conflict of many meditative space dramas is a failure to communicate between father and son (Ad Astra) – or a closed-off astronaut dad grieving the loss of a child (First Man) here Sarah just does a really capable job of talking through Stella’s questions, negotiating childcare and setting up the rocket launch sequence with bedtime routines. And it’s still heartbreaking for both of them that this kid’s mum is going to leave the earth for a year.
This astro-mother knows that the distance between the European Space Agency in Cologne and Star City, Russia might be just as painful as the distance between Earth and the ISS. “To me, the film is many separations,” says Winocour, “small separations, like the different stages of the rocket when it leaves the earth.” At the point at which a spacecraft leaves the atmosphere, the Russian protocol even refers to this stage as an ‘umbilical separation’ and, just as Stella tries to make Sarah jealous in the film, an astronaut told the director that one time she called home from the International Space Station, her daughter refused to talk to her, saying she had other things to do.
One of the only other substantial depictions of a mother/astronaut in recent years comes from Ronald D. Moore’s alternate space race show for Apple TV+, For All Mankind. After Russia puts a woman in space, in this timeline, Nasa trains an all-female cohort which includes the character Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), a one-time pilot and astronaut’s wife, who suffers similar guilt over not being the perfect mother. The parent-child relationship isn’t nearly as richly explored, as one of many competing plot strands including a grieving father in space, and Eva Green’s restrained performance in Proxima is in another class.
Winocour suggests that Hollywood has “monopolised the representation of space” whereas in European arthouse cinema even the trope of ‘the mother of dead children going to space’ has been twisted into something more complicated and interesting. French auteur Claire Denis’ 2018 English language sci-fi High Life features a premise designed to shock – a group of criminals on a mandatory space mission are subjected to forced artificial insemination – and a female scientist (Juliette Binoche) with her own tragic story of motherhood: she murdered her own children, hence her spot on the crew. In Proxima, Winocour’s everywoman realism is just as radical as Denis’ space horror considering how little we have seen of this type of character on screen.
Dharamsala / Darius Films
There are signs that the astronaut mum might become more of a film and TV staple. The teaser trailer for the ten part Netflix series Away was released in early July. It sees Hilary Swank playing an astronaut who leaves her husband and teenage daughter for space. It’s more in the American mould than Proxima: Swank is, of course, the commander of the mission, not a last-minute addition, it’s three years long and higher stakes. But one intriguing detail is that Away, from showrunner Jessica Goldberg, is loosely based on an Esquire article about Scott Kelly’s year long mission with cosmonaut Mikhail Kornieko simulating a trip to Mars, suggesting the story was gender-flipped at some point in the development process.
On a second viewing, mid-pandemic, Proxima also feels genuinely prescient. As front pages declare that working mothers in the UK are ‘sacrificial lambs’ in a coronavirus childcare crisis, the scenes dealing with how to communicate something big and scary with a child or trying to contend with disruptions to your children’s schooling and mental health may ring true for any parents willing and able to get to cinemas this summer. Winocour points out there is even a sequence in which Sarah must go into quarantine: “something that we know very well now.”
Nothing in the film actually takes place in space. The closest we get is when Stella, dressed in a purple jacket, white party skirt and furry boots, wanders from an ESA barbecue into a pitch black installation of the surface of the Moon, complete with a view of Earth and an eerie voiceover describing a sustainable, 3D printed moon base. But ESA astronauts and trainers have responded to Winocour’s focus on the vulnerability and fragility of human bodies, how they are designed to live on earth and how difficult this makes it to leave the planet. Luca Parmitano, who bunked on one of the same corridors as the film was shooting in Star City, watched Proxima aboard the ISS.
With training scenes featuring Sarah doggedly getting to grips with simulators, neutral buoyancy pools, vertical treadmills and robotic arms, Winocour managed to secure ridiculous, and unprecedented, access for her 60-person crew to film inside the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Star City near Moscow and the Baikonur Cosmodrome. In “every location”, they were the first to be permitted to film.
With dialogue in French, German, Russian and English in the film, the involvement of both the ESA and Russian Space Agency looks to be part of efforts to provide a fresh narrative alongside the familiar gung-ho American story. Eva Green spoke to Thomas Pesquet, Samantha Cristoforetti and Claudie Haigneré, a French astronaut who completed two Mir and ISS missions after she became a mother, for research. “I was very proud because one astronaut said he cried for the launch of the rocket,” says Winocour. “And I can tell you that to have an astronaut who cries is very unusual.”
Sophie Charara edits WIRED Recommends. She tweets from @sophiecharara
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