Space adventures used to be unencumbered by what the explorers left behind. In Gattaca, for example, the yearning for so space is so strong that the hero only has affection for his home planet in a fleeting moment. Complicated feelings define Proxima, the new French film about a female astronaut, and it continues in the “sad parent in space” tradition of Gravity, Interstellar, and First Man. A key difference between those films and this one is that writer/director Alice Winocour keep almost all the drama earthbound. Its vision of international cooperation is intriguing, although the central “women can’t have it all” narrative does not articulate anything new.
Eva Green plays Sarah, a French astronaut who joins Earth’s first mission to Mars. She dreamed of space of her entire life, but once the initial euphoria wears off, her remaining days on our planet present unique problems. She has to prepare her young daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) for their lengthy separation, and her ex-husband Thomas (Lars Eidinger) is little help. Winocour depicts Sarah in peak mental and physical condition, and yet she still has something to prove to Mike (Matt Dillon), the American head of the space mission. It is harder than she anticipates, so Sarah hides her physical strain, and enormous pressure of it all takes a psychological toll.
Proxima jumps around with language in a way that evokes a global sense of purpose. The dialogue is in French, German, English, and Russian. Sarah ably jumps between languages, of course, and there is a running gag where Mike only speaks a word or two of French. Does he understand the Russian Anton (Aleksey Fateev), the third crew member, at all? We see Mike mostly nod along, which is part of a larger problem with the film. Winocour defines her characters so broadly that it is difficult to invest in what befalls them.
Let’s start with Dillon, an actor whose delivery and energy is right for the role. Mike is a sexist, ignorant American in a way that would be retrograde half a century ago, and his inevitable respect for Sarah seems arbitrary, not earned. That same lack of specificity also plagues the dynamic between Sarah and Stella, whose time together has more clichés than affection. The actors do their best, with Green’s expressive face subtly revealing how she really feels, which makes the by the numbers approach all the more galling.
For a film ostensibly that explores humanity’s role in the universe, Proxima has little interest in space. Winocour frames the drama mostly in psychological terms, and rarely slows down the many training and mission prep sequences so that we understand what is at stake. A little exposition would go a long way, so what’s left are dimly lit scenes where Sarah faces personal and institutional sexism. She has to work harder to prove her she’s qualified: to herself, to her colleagues, to her family. The film suggests that, even as we reach for the stars, some things will never change. It is an important idea, so it is a shame the film does not dress it up with suspense, special effects, or situations that end unpredictably.