Single-mother Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) is a French astronaut preparing for a year-long mission aboard the ISS, and in the final weeks leading to the mission she finds that her relationship with her eight-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) is threatening to fall apart as the child starts to resent her mother for leaving her.
Proxima naturally reminded me of the similarly-themed Lucy in the Sky, in which Natalie Portman delivered a fine performance as an astronaut returning to Earth after a Space Shuttle mission finding herself unable to resume the normal life she had left behind. Proxima flips things around somewhat, dealing with the lead-up to a space mission and the toll it takes on personal relationships, but it shares topics such as women working in what is usually accepted as a mostly male-dominated profession and the unique pressures women face having to prove themselves equal. Proxima is clearly the superior film as it defttly navigates the many arcs running through it without being overly preachy or melodramtatic. For me, if it falters at any point its when Sarah abandons her pre-flight quarantine (essentially endangering the mission and her fellow crewmembers safety) in order to have one last important night with her daughter, to finally make peace with her and the situation they are caught up in. Emotionally, it works and acts as something of a crescendo for the film, but intellectually its sets up all sorts of alarm signals, which is unfortunate, because on the whole the film is quite remarkable for being both character-driven and involving, but also authentic in how it portrays the beaurocracy and administration around an astronauts career and the physical and intellectual intensity of their training. Being an astronaut is not a normal job, leaving the Earth is not a normal event, but men and women have to navigate the normality of family life and the bizarre enormity of what they are doing in their careers. Proxima explores the pressures that are perhaps not wholly unique to a woman, but it does offer intriguing observations of what particulalrly effects a mother, and the drive that ensures a woman can succeed in her life aspirations in what might be assumed to be a male-dominated career. The film stumbles a little in places but on the whole it suceeds really surprisingly well.
Eva Green is absolutely terrific, as might be expected. She’s one of the best actresses working today, and its hard for me to think of a bad performance of hers in anything I’ve seen her in (even if her choice of roles sometimes does her few favours- 300: Rise of an Empire for one). I remember how brilliant she was in the short-lived (and rather oddly under-appreciated) series Penny Dreadful, which sets me thinking that there’s another few Blu-rays up on my shelf that I should be watching again sometime (that watchlist is endless, frankly). The chemistry between Eve and young Zélie, who plays her daughter, is really quite affecting and it absolutely lends the film some greater intensity and sense of reality. Their rapport feels natural and real and its something that can get quite overlooked sometimes: its one of those things that viewers can often take for granted but if the chemistry isn’t there, or if it feels forced, it can really undermine any drama.
I think its to be welcomed that film-makers suddenly seem interested in the human side of space travel (Proxima is wholly set on Earth with no sequences set in space other than stock footage), and films like First Man, Lucy in the Sky and this indicate that there is plenty to explore. Some TV shows have explored this too and oddly enough don’t appear to have been as successful as their film counterparts (The First, starring Sean Penn was an interesting attempt that got cancelled after one season), wheras I would have thought an episodic format would have been a benefit. I would be fascinated to see a project with the emotonal/intellectual gravitas of First Man or Proxima combined with the scale and ambition of maybe a 2001: A Space Odyssey – well okay, thats maybe unfair, but then again, why? Why shouldn’t we be able to expect that of our current film-makers (what on Earth is James Cameron doing making sagas about blue Aliens when he should be tackling something with real importance, scale and ambition)? I suppose setting my sights more realistically, I’m thinking something with the reality of First Man or Proxima doubled with a film like The Martian or Mission to Mars: you know, get a sense of real drama and humanity in there with the hardware and spectacle. In space, you don’t need aliens or monsters to get viewers excited, the human story that got you there should be enough, and the impact of the experience on the human psyche and heart is a subject rich with possibilities.