Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, a truth sung long before trainee astronaut Sarah Loreau was born; too late to experience the Moon landings she regards herself as part of the Mars generation and has worked hard to be part of the European Space Agency’s Proxima mission, a year long voyage to the red planet previously only visited by unmanned probes.
It is not easy for her, separated from her boyfriend Thomas Akerman, also working at ESA though focused on another project, and between the two of them they split the care of their young daughter Stella, but with the intensifying demands of the training Sarah must give all her focus to the mission, the days counting down until she will relocate to Star City outside Moscow for final preparations before launch from Kazakhstan and the long separation.
The new film from writer/director Alice Winocour, Proxima is the opening night gala screening of the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival, a departure from the ragged intensity of her thriller Disorder which played in 2016, a meditation on the challenges of motherhood in the most competitive field imaginable and a celebration of those who have achieved it, the end credits featuring a roster of high-flying space mothers.
Penny Dreadful‘s Eva Green is Sarah, the separation of work and home life emphasised by her use of English at ESA and French with her daughter, told as a child that her dream of the stars was “not a job for girls,” and inwardly seething when her commander jokes at her official introduction to the press that she can bring her cooking skills to the mission, but smiling for the cameras like the professional she is.
Accustomed to being in charge, Mike Shannon (Wayward Pines‘ Matt Dillon) perhaps does not mean to be a boor but has little time for social conventions, focused on getting the job done and seeing Sarah as an untried asset, unwilling to accept her as part of his team until he has completed his own assessment of her ability.
Co-written by Jean-Stéphane Bron, the focus of Proxima is not the mission so much as the training and the personalities involved, following Sarah step by step through physical training in a horizontal running harness, G-force simulator, underwater simulations, virtual reality and survival and recovery exercises, slowly becoming part of a team with Mike and Anton Ocheivsky (Aleksey Fateev) even as Stella (Zélie Boulant) is left further behind.
Less schmaltzy than Astronaut which played Edinburgh Film Festival last year and less ridiculous than Ad Astra but more human than the cold detachment of First Man, in the almost documentary chronicling of Sarah’s preparation Proxima has perhaps more in common with Apollo 11, Green’s serene performance atypical in her resume, confident that she is entirely in her right place, or at least strong enough to never show her doubts in public.
Filmed on location at the training facilities of the European Space Agency and the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome, the access Winocour has obtained is astonishing, adding to the authenticity and the sense of collaboration and cooperation without which the endeavours of science and the film industry across international borders could ever hope to achieve so much or reach so high.