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Series Review: “Away” Remains Too Grounded in Earthly Problems

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 3rd, 2020

Film poster: “Away”

Away (Andrew Hinderaker = creator; Jessica Goldberg = showrunner) 2 out of 4 stars.

The future of our world appears uncertain, never more so than in the middle of a global pandemic, with additional rising tides of authoritarianism threatening to wash away the hard-fought gains of democracy, eroding intelligent climate-change policies, for good measure, as well. Facing the possibility of catastrophic damage to the Earth and the potential end of life as we know it, we look to the solar system and surrounding universe, which beckon appealingly, fantasies of space flight offering escape from current trauma. Science fiction has always served a purpose beyond mere entertainment, allowing humans to consider alternate paths inspired, in the finer examples of the genre, by the actual science and realities of the day. There are plenty of movies and series out in our mediaverse today that offer fanciful takes on our future in the cosmos; fewer are those that present the quotidian challenges of what such extraterrestrial travel might resemble. All assume, however, that we will, one day, take flight amongst the stars.

Along, then, comes Netflix’s new 10-part show, Away, starring Hilary Swank (I Am Mother), which examines what a journey to Mars would be like for those making it. At times more dramatically successful than others, the series, unfortunately, often frustrates with its overemphasis on the histrionic problems back home, at the expense of the narrative aboard the spacecraft. Given its title, it seems an especial shame that so much of the plot is spent not away, but here. Despite the stated destination, this is no procedural à la Ridley Scott’s 2015 The Martian, but a soap opera masquerading as a cosmic odyssey. Still, an often appealing cast does much to repair the screenplay flaws, if not enough to propel Away triumphantly forwards. If this is our mission, we may just be doomed.

Hilary Swank as Emma Green, in episode 101 of AWAY. Cr. DIYAH PERA/NETFLIX © 2020

Swank plays Emma, commander of the five-person spacecraft that departs from the moon after an initial short journey from Earth. Joining her on board this international joint venture are a British (via Ghana) biologist, a Chinese physicist, an Indian physician and a Russian engineer, all but the biologist experienced astronauts (to varying degrees). Right from the start, tensions simmer within the group, at least from Lu (Vivian Wu, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) and Misha (Mark Ivanir, Esau), driven both by their national pride (or pressure from their handlers) and a distrust of Emma following an initial incident. Kwesi (Ato Essandoh, O.G.) and Ram (Ray Panthaki, One Crazy Thing) are both much calmer (and nicer to Emma), at least at first, but it doesn’t take long before everyone is a bit of a hot mess, the trip facing its share of challenges both technical, medical and emotional.

But that’s only half the story, if even that. Back on our home planet, Emma’s husband, Matt (Josh Charles, The Drowning) and daughter Alexis, or “Lex” (Talitha Eliana Bateman, Countdown), have their own drama, which in turn impacts Emma’s focus and ability to lead (so maybe Lu and Misha aren’t so far off the mark). Bit by bit, as we learn everyone’s backstory, even the steadiest of characters reveal significant complexities, though some more than others; Kwesi and Ram, for example, are given shorter shrift. That’s all for the good, as three-dimensionality makes for a more compelling arc, but the result is an often agitated jumble that could take place anywhere, in any kind of show. If the point is to demonstrate that we are all human, no matter the situation, then so be it, but would ostensibly highly trained specialists really be this unprepared for such a monumental undertaking?

l-r: Vivian Wu as Lu Wang and Ray Panthaki as Ram Arya, in episode 102 of AWAY. Cr. DIYAH PERA/NETFLIX © 2020

And therein lies the essential weakness of the entire enterprise, however gripping certain sequences may legitimately be: at no point, with few exceptions, do the creators seem to have considered the intensity of focus that would bring these people together. They are the first people going to Mars! Yes, we all have problems, but should not the full impact of what a three-year voyage would entail have been considered prior to liftoff? It doesn’t always seem that way with this bunch. Worse, Emma’s emotional volatility provides unnecessary ammunition to those who might already worry about sending parents (particularly mothers) into space. At least she mostly gets it together, by the end.

The special effects, such as they are, adequately satisfy, with the lack of gravity in the ship’s main compartment handled well by the actors. I question the ease of communication between Earth and the vessel, though at least the writers do eventually (rather suddenly, it seems, to this non-astrophysicist) stop that from happening, but otherwise nothing on board deviates from what we as viewers have come to expect from the cinematic galaxy. Despite my frequent disappointment, I stuck it out, which is no small feat, given that the episodes range in length from 43 to 56 minutes; I felt almost as if I had been traveling “away” the whole time. At least it’s better than Netflix’s other offering earlier this year, Space Force

l-r: Josh Charles as Matt Logan and Talitha Bateman as Alexis Logan in episode 101 of AWAY. Cr. DIYAH PERA/NETFLIX © 2020
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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