Proxima: Some women don't belong in space
By Thomas M. Sipos
Some people might watch Proxima (2019) expecting science fiction. They will be disappointed. It's actually about a woman astronaut training for a mission aboard the International Space Station, while simultaneously coping with the problems of single motherhood. Imagine a Lifetime Channel movie with a bigger budget. Even so, Proxima is a diverting albeit unexceptional film, but for the bizarre plot twist near the end, which arguably subverts that film's feminist message -- especially in our Covid crazy era.
The film begins with Sarah (Eva Green) telling her ex-husband, Thomas (Lars Eidinger), that she has been chosen as one of three astronauts for a year-long mission on the ISS. Sarah needs Thomas to look after their daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), while Sarah's in space. Most of the film is about her training for the mission. The film ends when she blasts off into space.
Proxima is interesting for its peek into the world of astronaut training. But its drama doesn't stem primarily from the training scenes. The focus of the story is the mother and daughter's impending separation. Stella is a shy little girl. She'll miss her mom. She dreads changing schools to live with her dad. What if she makes no friends?
Proxima pays homage to the usual feminist clichés, but with gentle taps rather than a sledgehammer. Men are deprecated, but not demonized. Dad doesn't want to be burdened with the kid, but he easily relents and does a decent job. Sarah suffers some sexism from Mike (Matt Dillon), a fellow astronaut, who says there's no shame were Sarah to take a lighter course load. Sarah smiles politely and gamely says that she'll stick to the full schedule (same as the men). When Mike assures Sarah that he's not implying that she's "a space tourist," she knows that's exactly what he means.
Naturally, Sarah proves to be better than the men. While spinning in a centrifugal machine, she keeps insisting they increase the gravitational pull by another G. When she's at 9G, she asks to be taken to 10G, but the trainers think she's had enough. It's higher than was scheduled (i.e., than what the men had endured). Sarah is also a monster on the treadmill. When her heart rate increases to 180, the trainer tells her to stop, but Sarah wants to keep going. On a training mission she is the first to exit the capsule, by herself, whereupon, the observer tells us, she is now "helping" the men to exit.
Sarah is also magnanimous. A common cliché in old horror/sci-fi films is that whenever a woman runs from a monster, she'll trip and sprain her ankle. The hero (a man) then carries and rescues her. Proxima reverses the cliché. Sarah, Mike, and Anton (Aleksey Fateev) are doing laps in the forest. Mike trips and sprains his ankle. Just then, Sarah's phone rings. It's their superiors, asking the three astronauts how they're doing. A quick glance between Sarah and Mike. Sarah says they're all fine, sparing Mike later public embarrassment to his male ego. Mike nods his appreciation.
Throughout her training, Sarah talks to Stella, usually over the phone. Stella has a bad cold. Sarah is not there. Stella is sad because she has no friends. Sarah's heart breaks. Stella visits the training center in Russia. But Sarah is focused on her work. Stella is bored and leaves the building, into the Russian night. Sarah discovers Stella is missing! A panicked search! Mike has found Stella! Thank God!
It's not easy being an astronaut and a single mother.
Screenplay instructors say there should be a dramatic crisis/turning point near the middle of every film. Proxima follows this rule. At the halfway point, Sarah has an emotional breakdown. She tells Thomas that "It's too hard." Not the brainy or brawny stuff. Sarah is brilliant and strong. But the matters of the heart. Leaving Stella.
But as with all things Proxima, the crisis is minor and easily resolved. Thomas tells Sarah, "You said you wanted a bicycle. Now ride it." And with that pep talk, Sarah regains her confidence and resolve. She wanted to be an astronaut, dammit, and that's just what she's gonna do!
Then comes the glaring error that subverts the whole film.
It's a few days before the launch. Sarah was to meet and hug Stella one last time before liftoff. But Stella's plane was delayed. By the time Stella arrives, the astronauts are in quarantine. Sarah and Stella place their hands against the glass. But they cannot touch. Stella is sad. Her mom promised they would see the rocket together. She promised. Sarah's heart breaks.
That night, Sarah breaks quarantine. She sneaks out of the building. Escapes from the gated, high security compound. Goes to the Stella's hotel. Thomas, an astrophysicist who knows better, is surprised to see his ex-wife breaking quarantine, but without protest, hands over their daughter. Sarah drives Stella to the rocket site. A tender moment as mother and daughter gaze upon the rocket that will take Sarah into space.
Sarah returns Stella to Thomas, sneaks back into the gated, high security compound, into the building, unseen. Takes a long shower with disinfectant. That's so we know that Sarah is responsible, careful to avoid infecting the crew with any germs she might have picked up.
Hey, if that's all that's required -- why the quarantine?
How to interpret this scene? That the "male chauvinists" were right all along? Women can't be trusted in jobs meant for men. They're too emotional. They won't perform with equal professionalism. They'd really be happier at home with the kids.
Or are we to think that man-made rules shouldn't apply to women? Either because women know better; the current rules are bunk, established solely to keep women out. Or because current rules are not fair to women; even if the rules make sense, society must accommodate women's unique needs with new rules.
The rules have already been relaxed for Sarah. We learn that astronauts normally cut their hair before flights, but Sarah tells a reporter that it's only because it's more convenient, not because it's necessary. Sarah has elected to keep her hair long. Sarah also elects to eschew drugs that would stop her menstruating while in space, despite the inconvenience.
But breaking quarantine hours before a flight is beyond inconvenient, no? Does it not endanger the entire crew and mission? As it happens, Sarah is not caught. The film treats her action not as a selfish, irresponsible, unprofessional breach of protocol -- but as an empowering assertion of a career woman's love for her daughter.
Screen Daily calls Proxima "a feminist masterpiece." Yet in the end, Sarah proves unable to suppress her emotions and meet masculine standards of professionalism. To which the Left would reply, so what? Women should not be judged by "masculine standards of professionalism."
The debate might end at that impasse -- between progressive "gender feminists" and conservative "equity feminists," but for Covid-19.
Proxima might have seemed a good idea when it was released in 2019. But 2020 imposes a new reading onto the film. In 2020, progressives treat people without masks like mass murderers. The maskless have been physically assaulted. But if taking a walk outdoors without a mask is a deadly threat, how much more serious to break quarantine -- without a mask! -- hours before spending an entire year sealed in a tiny space station?
Proxima does end on a powerful note. A crowd watches the rocket blast off. A quick cut to Sarah, smiling in the capsule. Then back to the crowd. A long moment as we watch the rocket rising, rising, rising, until it's a tiny speck of light. Then nothing. We watch the crowd disperse. We watch Stella go home. We never see Sarah again. She is gone. These final shots effectively convey how distant and unreachable the astronauts feel to those left behind on Earth.
The end credits play over a series of photos of historical female astronauts and cosmonauts, posing with their children. To honor the "real life" Sarahs. But I'm guessing that none of these astronauts broke quarantine to be with their kids. So are they really honored by being represented by Sarah?
Thomas M. Sipos writes film criticism and political satire. His website is http://www.CommunistVampires.com/