In a sea of space-related stories being released this year, Proxima stands solemnly alone, more content to dramatize the internal turmoil of the preparation process than carve an insurmountable hole in its budget for a lot of realistic special effects. In a way, this is refreshing. The intense training it takes for would-be astronauts to ready their bodies for the physical and mental challenges of reaching zero gravity is just as inherently cinematic as watching them bob in their suits against the starry and infinite darkness of the galaxy. And Alice Winocour, to her credit, does a fair amount to make her protagonist’s journey to reach her goal an absorbing one. Partly this is thanks to Eva Green’s superb talent as an actress; partly it lies in the scientific technology and tools being explained and displayed in front of us. In fact, one could easily classify this as a docudrama, for while the characters are all fictitious, the processes and procedures they face are all true to life. Winocour, in her post-screening Q&A discussion, explained how intensely she researched all the methods and locations that real astronauts have encountered before rocketing up to the International Space Station. She spoke with them. She witnessed them train. She even inadvertently met with the head of NASA and asked whether he’d like a role in her film (he, sadly, politely declined).
In the scrupulous details, Winocour wins out. When it comes to the actual substance, however, the film yields fewer satisfying results. For while this is very much about training regimens and psychological grounding, Winocour also wants to give it a feminist spin. Therefore, Green’s character has a daughter named Stella, and their bond is airtight. So airtight, in fact, that the thought of leaving her behind on Earth for a few years gives Green’s Sarah a lot of pause. But onward she must go, because Winocour wishes to remind us that women are perfectly capable of being successful astronauts as well as mothers. They are not mutually exclusive roles. Of course, we’ve seen female astronauts visit space countless times, so this shouldn’t be revelatory knowledge to us. For Winocour’s vision to click, however, she wants us to revel in how great this feat is. How wrong everyone is to doubt Sarah’s capabilities because she’s a woman. Unfortunately, it’s hard to take her cue, for it lends the film a dated sheen. Indeed, this would’ve been much more convincing had it been released ten or twenty years ago because nowadays we just tend to take it for granted that women can pursue the same careers as men. It’s not something progressive minds question. Why Winocour asks us to assume an outmoded mindset—even if but for a moment—is perplexing.
Other issues arise from that. Winocour presents Proxima with a muted sensibility, dialing everything back a notch so that even the colour grading is greyer than I’m used to seeing. In doing so, many of the emotional facets of the story are blunted by a coldly mechanical torpor, arguably only mitigated by the quietly humbling finale when everyone finally wears their emotions on their sleeves. To be fair, the understated emotionality does create affecting moments in isolation when they come unexpectedly. One example is a scene done in voiceover in which Sarah tells Stella about the physical effects of being in space for long periods. Another is when Sarah writes a personal letter to her daughter in case she never returns home from her mission. Brief moments such as these helps initiate a connection to the characters, but the interstitial material surrounding them is less engaging, preventing us from completely sharing in Winocour’s vision. It is, at best, a gentle mother-daughter tale about conflicting protocols and duties that must be resolved before liftoff can be attained. In its weakest moments, it’s a film somewhat at odds with our times, belatedly validating the capabilities of women in male-driven, scientific fields when those capabilities were never in question to begin with.
Proxima received its world premiere at TIFF in the Platform programme on September 7, 2019.