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CHRIS KNIGHT: This fall, cinema goes to space and explores the family connections left behind


When humans venture into space, we trade the intimate for the infinite.

It’s not an easy bargain, and there are costs on both sides. Astronauts on the International Space Station routinely speak of missing the simple smells, sounds and feelings of the earth – space has never known the fragrance of grass, the buzz of cicadas or the touch of wind.

On the other hand, space provides a glimpse into the sublime unattainable from any earthly vantage. When Ed White became the first American to perform a spacewalk in 1965, the view so transfixed him that he had to be ordered — several times — to return to his ship. “I’m coming back in,” he eventually replied. “And it’s the saddest moment of my life.”

“You’re going to a place that’s hostile to human life, and so many things can go wrong,” is how Noah Hawley puts it. “But once you’re up there it’s a celestial experience.”

Hawley is the director of Lucy in the Sky , which had its world premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, and opens across Canada on Oct. 4. Natalie Portman stars as Lucy Cola, an astronaut who suffers an existential crisis when she returns to Earth.

The movie is loosely based on the story of Lisa Nowak, a NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle in 2006, but shortly after her return to Earth was charged with the attempted kidnapping of her former lover’s new girlfriend.

The detail that gripped the public was that her cross-country drive to the scene of the crime allegedly involved wearing adult diapers to avoid making stops for anything other than fuel. (Google “astronaut diaper” and the first hit is Nowak’s Wikipedia page.)

That detail isn’t in the film. “The point of this movie was to restore that dignity and that humanity,” says Hawley. “It’s what I would call true-story-adjacent. The real story was more of a jumping-off point for me. It was a ‘why’ question: Why would someone go up there and come back and make these choices?”

Another difference between Nowak and Portman’s character is that the astronaut in the movie has no children, while Nowak has three. That’s a vital detail in the movie Proxima , which also had its world premiere at TIFF but has no Canadian release date yet.

French writer/director Alice Winocour’s fictional story involves an astronaut (Eva Green) who is chosen to join the crew of the International Space Station. As she trains for the mission, she must navigate her feelings for her eight-year-old daughter, Stella, and the guilt of being away from her for so long, both in training and then in space.

“From the beginning, I had this idea of an astronaut for whom this state of separation with the Earth could resonate with the separation with the little girl,” says Winocour, who also has a daughter, aged 10.

The language of rocket launches is peppered with references to stages and separation. “And we call the Earth ‘Mother Earth.’ It was this echo that I found interesting.”

In researching Proxima , Winocour contacted many astronauts. Her countryman Jean-François Clervoy flew on three shuttle missions between 1994 and 1999, leaving behind a son who was battling cancer, never certain what might happen in his absence.

She also spoke to Julie Payette, the Governor-General of Canada, who flew one shuttle mission in 1999 and another in 2009. In the interim, she gave birth to a son. “She told me that being a mother is the best school to learn multi-tasking,” a vital skill for space, says Winocour. Her film ends with a series of photographs of real female astronauts with their children.

We tend to think of science fiction movies as the realm of robots and technology, but many of the best hinge on family connections. Look at Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity , quietly grieving the loss of a child; the bond between mother and daughter in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival ; the search for a parent in Blade Runner 2049 from the same director; or Interstellar , in which Matthew McConaughey’s character loses years of his children’s lives through time dilation.

“It’s the paradox of the astronaut,” says Winocour. “You think they’re superhumans but the reality is that to be an astronaut is an experience of your human fragility and vulnerability, because living in space – it’s inhuman; conditions in space are terrible.” Or as one of the characters in her film puts it: “The hard part is coming back, when you realize life goes on without you.”

Yet another parent-child bond can be seen in the new film Ad Astra from James Gray, which stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut, and Tommy Lee Jones as his father, another space traveller, missing for decades in the outer solar system.

But where Lucy in the Sky is set mostly on Earth, and Proxima completely so (it ends with a rocket launch), Ad Astra takes place almost entirely off-world, as Pitt’s character travels to the moon, Mars and beyond. In this case, the intimate bond of parenthood and the infinite vista of space are merged.

Family may be the most obvious link that is severed — and, one hopes, rejoined — when humans leave the Earth, but there is also a larger disconnection. Fifty years ago this summer, when humans first stepped on the moon, one man — Michael Collins — stayed in orbit around our satellite while the other two walked on it.

He was separated from his crewmates by up to 3,500 km — roughly the width of the Atlantic Ocean — and from the rest of his species by some 393,000 km, a distance for which there is no terrestrial equivalent, unless you were to walk around this planet at the equator, 10 times over. 

On his return to Earth, he tried to explain that feeling of solitude. “It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon,” he said. “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three-billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God-knows-what on this side.” A photograph he took of the returning lunar module with the Earth in the background is famous for framing every human being, living or dead, except for one; the photographer.

In space, we connect not only with what it is to be human, but Terran. “Our bodies are made to live on Earth,” says Winocour. “We’re Earthlings. The more you become a space person, the more you feel attached to the Earth.”

Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote more than a decade before the dawn of the Space Age: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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