More like space thrillers, these three sci-fi films transport human dilemmas across planets and galaxies, but ultimately, all emotions land home.
Watching three sci-fi movies back to back on Netflix, one can’t help but draw parallels. None of which are incidental.
Modern sci-fi storytelling has spotted the inherent inwardness of the outer-space template. All three of these films released post-pandemic. It feels like film makers have found ingenious ways to communicate chaos on earth onto cramped space capsules gazillions of miles away.
Forget aliens, hostile planets, black holes, solar storms and Christopher Nolan’s sense of time, it feels like humans first have to be saved from themselves.
If the sheer inhumanity and inequality that COVID crises have brought to light make for excellent cinema, then these three sci-fi films are just the beginning.
One is American, the other French and the final is an Indian sci-fi thriller. Yet another indication that the conflicts in these movies – existentialism, danger, horror, insanity, love, longing – are bereft of cultural specificity.
Director: Joe Penna
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson, and Toni Collette
Probably the most “thrilling” out of the three, this formidable genre vehicle, is much more than its form.
The spaceship MTS-42, launches for a two-year mission to Mars. It consists of a veteran commander Marina Barnett (an Aussie accented Collette), biologist David Kim, and a medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Kendrick at her most serious). Everything seems to be going well until it isn’t. The crew discovers a stowaway, a launch support engineer Michael Adams, aboard on the spaceship with them.
Just when you think this a survival thriller, the supplies packed for three people suddenly have to be divided amongst four. The film subverts your expectations by notching up the stakes further up.
Let’s just say if Indian oxygen scammers were up there, they would get rich pretty damn quickly.
As soon as Micheal enters the frame, the interiors of the ship attain a sense of claustrophobia. The sci-fi drama commits to humanity instead of science in its storytelling. What’s more, Micheal is a black man. In the post-George Floyd universe, it is almost a sin to see him as extra baggage thrust upon the other three-the more qualified, more deserving humans. This fact adds silent subtext to our perception of the premise.
Who will take on the burden of morality? Who should? The ground control guy, Jim, representing the space company Hyperion (a stand-in for NASA) remains faceless and voiceless, as if the makers have given up on big corporations to find solutions that don’t discriminate against a certain race.
The ending will leave you unsatisfied, conflicted but the person who ends up sacrificing in space leaves with a promise of a hopeful future for humanity on earth.
Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric and Malik Zidi
The more I talk about the film, the more I risk spoiling it. Even putting it in the list of sci-fi thrillers may have given something away to more astute cinephiles. I can’t even name the protagonist without spoilers.
A woman wakes up in a cryogenic pod (yeah, the one from Passengers) with no memory of herself. Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) has us hooked for 1 hr 42 mins straight because she is the only face shown in the film.
It’s hard to overcome the cruel irony of a sci-fi thriller centred on a desperate, against-the-clock battle to locate extra oxygen. Through the film, the oxygen levels of her pod are dropping, as she searches for everything under the sun- from her name to where the hell she is.
The film reveals itself, like peeling layers of an onion. It is not until ¾ of the duration that we actually see the glimpse outside her pod. It’s claustrophobic, many moments will make you squirm. The film even begins with a disclaimer for photosensitive viewers.
As for the existential questions it asks, it answers rather hurriedly towards the third act. But it is comforting and after keeping you at the edge of your seat (or couch) for so long, you do feel rewarded for tolerating the cerebral violence.
Director: Arati Kadav
Starring: Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi
The solitude of space travel has long been the emotional core of Western science fiction stories. But Cargo’s design is to the space opera what Tim Burton was once to superhero movies. Simple, cut throat, and so 1990s.
It’s both real and unreal at once, and the visual dissonance adds to the way Cargo and its playful marriage of the past and future- tells this sci-fi story. The dated set design (owing to budgetary constraints perhaps) works for the film that fuses mythology and science fiction.
I am not familiar with Indian mythology but all the ‘people’ manning the spaceship Pushpak 634A are demons, or Rakshas (not like devils with horns). They just look like humans but have special powers.
A demon Prahastha ( a perfectly stoic Vikrant Massey), works for the Post Death Transition services at Pushpak. His job is to handle the cargo (bunch of recently deceased humans) and recycle them for rebirth. Re-incarnation as a concept has been hijacked by many melodramatic Bollywood films but never in a sci-fi thriller. It is both sadly comical and refreshing.
In the times when the briefness of life is all but too tangible, the film lightens the morbidity of death with some timely humour. At some point, it also becomes a workers-at-odds movie with one rakshas jaded and reluctant to leave, and the other, inquisitive and keen to start.
This demon’s solitary stint (Prahastha has served on the ship for 75 years) also reflects on the loneliness of a worker who loves the solitude of his job.
This film definitely needs a sequel. Would some big producer take heed please????
Hope you all land back safely to earth after over dosing on these sci-fi space thrillers! What have been some of your recent favourites in the genre? We’re always eager for more recommendations.
Maleeha is based in Lahore and pursuing a bachelor’s degree. She snacks on books, films, cookies and anything artistic under the Lahori hot sun. Her ultimate goal is to get a room of her own and a fixed annual income in her name (as per Virginia Wolf’s recommendation) to write forever, without falling prey to capitalist trappings. You can follow more of her ramblings on Instagram and twitter