Eva Green shines as a mother heading to Mars in a powerful but patchy look at space-age sexism
Dads in space has been a genre in vogue for a while now, from Brad Pitt searching for a lost patriarch in Ad Astra to Neil Armstrong’s grief in First Man, via the altogether stranger father-daughter dynamic at the heart of High Life. What separates Alice Winocour’s Proxima from this pack, then, is that it instead centres on how motherhood meets the cold void of space, helping it stand out in a surprisingly crowded field.
Eva Green gets her best role in years as Sarah, a French astronaut in the final stages of preparing for a mission that will pave the way for humanity’s first landing on Mars. She’s thrilled to be going, but as the launch draws nearer, her resolve starts to crack, the inevitable separation becoming a heavy burden on her relationship with her young daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant).
Green gives a fantastic performance, and shares a brilliantly authentic chemistry with Boulant, who is entertainingly sharp in her own right. Sarah has to constantly repress physical or emotional discomforts for the sake of both her daughter and the rest of her crew, and Green does a great job of subtly conveying the toll this takes, all the while managing constant shifts between languages. She speaks French with Stella, German with her amicably divorced ex Thomas (Lars Eidinger), English with her crew and journalists, and Russian during training, these impressive linguistic challenges rarely interfering with her performance.
We’re never told precisely when Proxima takes place, but the mission to Mars and background chatter about building a permanent base on the Moon suggests a near future. The technological achievements on display clearly haven’t translated to social progress, though, and Sarah faces boorish sexism from all sides, most prominently from American astronaut Mike (Matt Dillon).
He introduces himself with a crack about how great it’ll be to have Sarah cook for the crew on the International Space Station, putting her on the defensive immediately, and the oppressive atmosphere Mike creates wafts off the screen in noxious waves. Plenty of sci-fi movies make you want to go to space yourself, but Sarah’s absurdly intense training (clearly meticulously researched), made all the more difficult by the constant casual misogyny, is more likely to put you off.
Proxima stays earthbound throughout, but Winocour makes Sarah’s environment feel alien nonetheless. Quarantined in a city exclusively for astronauts, there’s a sterility to her world that makes it dystopian (and hits especially hard thanks to Proxima’s status as one of the first post-lockdown cinema releases).
While initially effectively unnerving, this sterility ends up seeping into the storytelling. For a lot of the third act, Proxima is just going through the motions, waiting for the launch, and a climactic set-piece is misguided in its attempts to jolt the plot back to life. It is too action-heavy and sentimental, and even serves to undermine the feminist message that the rest of the film works so hard at.
Just when things threaten to go over the edge, though, Green’s performance and the powerfully moving bond between Sarah and Stella pull it back. Winocour grants all her characters hidden depths, even the odious Mike, the gradual reveals of which give a greater emotional resonance to the ending. It can’t quite stand alongside the very best of the “sad space parents” genre, but Proxima still stakes a claim for itself with its unique perspective and committed realism.
Proxima is released in select UK cinemas from July 31.Where to watch