Realities of space travel

Proxima shows the difficulties of balancing family life with a career as an astronaut, finds Simon Ings

Realities of space travel

THE year before Apollo 11’s  successful mission to the moon,  Robert Altman directed James Caan  and Robert Duvall in Countdown. The  1968 film stuck to the technology  of its day, pumping up the drama  with a somewhat outlandish  mission plan: astronaut Lee Stegler  and his shelter pod are sent to the  moon’s surface on separate flights  and Stegler must find the shelter  once he lands if he is to survive.

The film played host to characters  you might conceivably bump into  at the supermarket: the astronauts, engineers and bureaucrats have  families and everyday troubles not  so very different from your own.

Proxima is Countdown for  the 21st century. Sarah Loreau,  an astronaut played brilliantly by  Eva Green, is given a last-minute  opportunity to join a Mars precursor  mission to the International Space  Station. Loreau’s training and  preparation are impressively  captured on location at European  Space Agency facilities in Cologne,  Germany – with a cameo from  French astronaut Thomas Pesquet –  and in Star City, the complex outside  Moscow that is home to the Yuri  Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center.  She is ultimately headed to launch  from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Comparing Proxima with  Countdown shows how much  both cinema and the space  community have changed in  the past half-century. There are  archaeological traces of action-hero  melodramatics in Proxima, but they are the least satisfying parts of  the movie. Eva Green is a credible  astronaut and a good mother,  pushed to extremes on both fronts  and painfully aware that she chose  this course for herself. She can’t be  all things to all people all of the time  and, as she learns, there is no such  thing as perfect.   Because Proxima is arriving  late – its launch was delayed by  the covid-19 lockdown – advances  in space technology have already  somewhat gazzumped Georges  Lechaptois’s metliculous location  cinematography. I came to the film  still reeling from watching the  Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour  lift off from Kennedy Space Center  on 20 May. That crewed launch was the  first of its kind from US soil since  NASA’s space shuttle was retired in  2011 and looked, from the comfort  of my sofa, about as eventful as a  ride in an airport shuttle bus. So it  was hard to take seriously those  moments in Proxima when taking  off from our planet’s surface is  made the occasion for an existential  crisis. “You’re leaving Earth!”  exclaims family psychologist  Wendy (Sandra Hüller) at one point,  thoroughly earning the look of  contempt that Loreau shoots at her.

Proxima’s end credits include  endearing shots of real-life female  astronauts with their very young  children – which does raise a bit of a  problem. The plot largely focuses on  the impact of bringing your child to  work when you spend half your day  in a spacesuit at the bottom of a  swimming pool.  “Cut the cord!”  cries the absurdly chauvinistic  NASA astronaut Mike Shannon  (Matt Dillon) when Loreau has to go  chasing after her young daughter.  Yet here is photographic evidence  that suggests Loreau’s real-life  counterparts – Yelena Kondakova,  Ellen Ochoa, Cady Coleman and  Naoko Yamazaki – managed  perfectly well on multiple missions  without all of Proxima’s turmoil.  Wouldn’t we have been better off  seeing the realities they faced rather  than watching Loreau, in the film’s  final moments, break Baikonur’s  safety protocols in order to steal  a feel-good, audience-pandering  mother-daughter moment?  For half a century, movies  have struggled to keep up with  the rapidly changing realities  of the space sector. Proxima,  though interesting and boasting  a tremendous central performance  from Green, proves to be no more  relevant than its forebears.  ❚

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