Made during the runup to the golden jubilee celebrations of the first Moon landing, First Man begins in the middle of action: Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) manoeuvres his plane at the edge of atmosphere, veers close to catastrophe, but manages to land back on earth without much damage. The reason for his lapse of judgment, it is revealed, is that his toddler daughter is suffering from an incurable tumour. She dies shortly thereafter and Neil moves with his wife Janet and son to Houston, having been selected for the test programmes in NASA’s moon mission. Life in Houston has all the trappings of middle-class normalcy – sub-urban house with a lawn, grill parties with neighbours, pastel-coloured wallpaper – but Neil and Janet can never blend in. The moon mission is proceeding at full throttle against all odds, resulting in the loss of several astronauts, all Neil’s friends and neighbours.
It appears that, constantly touched by death, Neil is a stoic, melancholy man, not yet on the moon, but entirely not of this earth. He removes himself completely from family life, content to gaze at the moon every night. In the film’s most effective scene, he is forced by Janet before he leaves for the mission to have a final chat with his sons, which Neil completes like a press meet. Gosling channels some of his work from Lars and the Real Girl and one of the ironies First Man is going for is that this man, brilliant engineer but a social outcast, is constantly asked to bear the burden of history, to be in the eye of media attention, give press conferences, attend White House dinners, and be the receptacle of popular anger against the mission; that he had to go to the moon to be able to get back home. The thrust of Damien Chazelle’s interspersing of Neil’s incurable gloom and the agitations of the sixties is that, no matter one’s privileged social-historical situation, private grief is all-consuming and can’t be relativized.
In this, the film also seems to want to paint a metaphysical portrait of the sexes. Like Western heroes, Neil’s and his fellow male astronauts’ straying away from the pull of domesticity towards the unknown and the endless suffering of their wives and children comes across as descriptions of an eternal condition. The repeated superposing of the domestic scenes at home featuring Janet and children and NASA’s commentary of the mission is supposed to have an Odyssey-like weight, but only grows increasingly wearisome. Janet’s character, more than Neil’s, remains greatly underdeveloped (Claire Foy’s drama school tics condemn it to a type) and it’s symptomatic that this film, which namechecks various discontentment of the sixties, completely sidesteps the sexual revolution that could’ve given Janet a more rounded presence.
Some of the formal choices are interesting, especially its low-budget-movie tendency to avoid spectacle for suggestion of spectacle: most of the thrill is conveyed to us not through rocket ballets but via numbers on screen, the low-key score, the sound of metals clinging, the actor’s frenetic breathing and the claustrophobic setting of the capsule. Not allowing for sights outside the capsule makes for a subjective experience of impending death. It also reinforces the film’s parallel theme about man’s conflicted faith in technological progress. In a recruitment interview, Neil says that he wants to go to space in order to get a better perspective of life on earth, hinting at a distrust of technology that wasn’t able to save his daughter.
Given that everyone knows how Apollo 11 or the preceding missions panned out in reality, screenwriter Josh Singer pegs the dramatic power of his script on the time-limited nature of the mission. Kennedy’s declaration that an American will be on the moon within the decade taken alongside the impossible odds against which that goal has to be achieved lends the film the thrill of a countdown. Chazelle employs glass as a crucial element of his mise en scène and the material comes to reflect Neil’s emotionlessness, his distance from his family as well as the vastness of the unknown facing him. The last scene, loudly understated, is La La Land Redux.
The human aspect of space travel is also at the centre of Claire Denis’ first full-length English language production, High Life. Far in the future, death row inmates are given a choice to volunteer for a one-way mission to the nearest black hole. Strict rules are observed on board, the inmates are still treated like prisoners, with everyday tasks to be completed. Overseeing the ship is a slowly-disintegrating captain (Lars Eidinger) and a cookie scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is trying in vain to produce babies by artificially inseminating the female prisoners with semen samples from the male prisoners. With exposure to radiation mounting as they near the black hole, the prisoners get increasingly restless and Dibs keeps them sedated by adulterating their rations. But the strict prohibition of sexual contact between inmates leads to a breaking point and the mission is thrown into jeopardy.
Well, that is the story, but we don’t get to it right away. The film’s opening fifteen minutes constructs an otherworldly ambience. A glide through a misty garden with a mysterious shoe hints at earth. A baby is seen in a cradle surrounded by screens and electronic equipment, her father Monte (Robert Pattinson) speaks to her through the computers, but he’s perched on top of a spaceship trying to fix an issue. There’s no information about how these spaces are linked and the enigma creates fertile connections in the viewer’s mind. The film proceeds in several stretches through such mosaic of details, which are glued together through clumsy expositional elements such as an Indian professor in a train on earth spelling out the premise. The image of a man and his child aboard a ship heading nowhere is a combination of hope and doom that the film drops for the more ordinary spectacle of the inmates going bonkers.
The everyday events on the ship unfold gradually with sudden bursts of violence, causing the attrition of the crew. We are never sure how big the prison-ship is or what the exact relation between the spaces we see is, except that the garden is a more spiritually-invested zone that disinfects the inmates, gives them an experience of home and helps them come to terms with their dire situation. Monte resists Binoche’s charms to preserve his essence, but is overpowered by her and fathers a baby unbeknownst. His resentment and eventual acceptance of the child perhaps is perhaps what the film is most committed to, turning the story into an allegory of sorts for life on earth. The narrative shifts back and forth in time and there’s a twenty-year jump that finds the baby all grown, now picking up human concepts like faith and cruelty through videos still being transmitted from earth – an improbable Bildung we are asked to take on faith.
As is customary for Denis, particular attention is given to the various textures of the ship: the plastic curtains overseeing the garden, the fabric in “The Box” where prisoners go to let out steam, the padding on the ship’s walls, Binoche’s writhing skin, the actors’ hair which seems to have some special power in the narrative. Every bodily fluid that exists is roll-called and becomes a resource to be harnessed. Denis shoots in odd aspect ratios and that adds to the echo of Solaris resounding through the film. The film, to be sure, is a distinct auteur excursion into this derided genre. But it lacks the consistent ambiguity of The Intruder or the emotional beats of 35 Shots of Rum. Going one-up on the cynicism of Bastards, High Life seems to embody a bitter outlook towards not just civilization, but the human race in totality. Why bother?
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