Ever since NASA was created to help us explore space, Hollywood has glamorised the profession of the astronaut, making it look like one of the coolest, most intense, dangerous, and difficult jobs that only true heroes are up to the task for. Playing an astronaut has become a major actor's showcase - plenty of actors have made nuanced, dimensional roles out of superheroes, but even the most sensitive renderings of Batman, Iron Man, or Spider-Man don't tend to offer the same level of introspection and dignity that actors get from floating around in space, contemplating the cosmos.
The funny thing is: almost all of these recent astronaut star vehicles are domestic dramas in disguise. By including expensive visual effects and putting famous people in spacesuits, they put a big-budget gloss on a type of movie that most studios are hesitant to make even on a shoestring. As much as newer space movies may claim to take inspiration from '2001: A Space Odyssey', Kubrick's film is more about mankind's collective relationship with the universe, something these newer movies don't always foreground in their narratives. 'Ad Astra' is a father/son drama to match the father/daughter dynamic of 'Interstellar'. 'Lucy in the Sky' centres on an extramarital affair and a disintegrating marriage. 'Gravity' and 'First Man' are about parents' grief. 'High Life' is about the mysteries of parenthood.
In director Alice Winocour's 'Proxima', Eva Green ('Dumbo') plays Sarah Loreau, a French astronaut fulfilling a lifelong dream to leave Earth on a spaceship for a year-long stint on the International Space Station. She has a loving relationship with her eight-year-old daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), but is grappling with the prospect of leaving her on Earth with her astrophysicist ex-husband and Stella's father, Thomas (Lars Eidinger, '25 km/h'). The film opens with a cute scene in which the mother/daughter pair share a countdown to bedtime, where they have open conversations about what lies ahead; the child even asks questions like, "Will you die before me?" while seemingly embracing the adventure.
Sarah's training is arduous. The training scenes, shot in the real Star City facilities in Moscow, are very vivid, from the now-familiar centrifugal machines to fully-suited mock emergency exercises performed underwater, to scary levels of gym training. She also has to contend with the alpha male American leader of her team, Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon, 'The House That Jack Built'), who sees Sarah as a "tourist", not an astronaut. "I've heard that French women are great cooks," he jokes at a press conference for the launch, as Sarah stares laser beams through him.
Eva Green is the female Nicolas Cage - she's an actor who commits so completely to each role, no matter how weird, that she makes every movie she's in a lot better by virtue of her presence.
Adding to all this pressure, Stella starts to unravel at her mother's absence, even before Sarah has left the planet. Luckily, they have the support of Wendy (Sandra Hüller, 'Toni Erdmann'), a psychologist appointed by the European Space Agency to help guide the mother and daughter through the complexities of their imminent separation.
A fearless actress who has no time for pedestrian concerns about vanity or what some might consider to be over the top, Eva Green is the female Nicolas Cage - she's an actor who commits so completely to each role, no matter how weird, that she makes every movie she's in a lot better by virtue of her presence. Personally, I think her best parts have been the more conventional ones, like her role as an enigmatic teacher in Jordan Scott's 'Cracks', a gothically moody girls' school drama adapted from a Sheila Kohler novel.
Winocour consulted with Claudie Haignéré, the first female French astronaut, as she wrote 'Proxima', and her script gives Green a lot to work with. Sarah really is the business: super-smart, supremely prepped, physically in top shape. Green's intense, down-to-earth performance makes her character simultaneously formidable and vulnerable. Winocour also avoids turning Mike and Thomas into one-dimensional antagonistic stereotypes, as both Dillon and Eidinger are provided with some extra shades to give depth and perspective to their characters.
'Proxima' isn't a visually flashy film, it's naturalistic and almost documentary-like in its approach - the end credits are even accompanied by photos of real-life female astronauts. But this only enhances the intimacy of this earthbound drama about a high-achieving woman's trauma at the thought of leaving her young daughter behind her.