'Proxima' Is a Down-to-Earth Movie About Going to Space
Eva Green plays a French astronaut caught between motherhood and the cosmos.
The word "proxima" comes from the Latin "proximus," meaning close, or near. It's where we get words in English like "approximate" and "proximity." "Proxima," the feminine form of the world, was used to name the star Proxima Centauri, a member of the Alpha Centauri system and the nearest known star to our Sun. That nearness, though, is measured not in miles or days but in light-years — 4.244, to be exact. Proxima Centauri's nearness is a lonely, remote sort of nearness, a nearness not in Earth terms but in the terms of the vastness of outer space, and a nearness that we don't yet have the technology with which to traverse.
Proxima is also the name of the mission to the planet Mars featured in the film Proxima, directed by Alice Winocour (Mustang) and starring Eva Green as Sarah, an astronaut who finds out she's a last-minute addition to the mission, and learns the ropes at a training facility while coming to terms with being far away from her young daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) for the next few years. The crew of the Proxima mission will be the first humans for whom Earth will appear as a tiny blue-tinged star in the sky. Sarah juggles the stress, both mental and physical, of proving her competency to her crewmates, a friendly Russian cosmonaut named Anton (Aleksey Fateev) and the more severe American astronaut Mike (Matt Dillon), while feeling unable to let go of her daughter.
The film is equal parts meditative drama and comprehensive tour of the European Space Agency, at which most of the training scenes were filmed. Sarah tests a robotic arm, runs horizontally on a treadmill affixed to a wall, trains with her crewmates in a deep pool, and completes survival drills in the nearby lake. Young Stella is at first enamored with the idea of her mother going to the stars, memorizing rocket launch countdown sequences and asking questions about every technical term she doesn't understand. While Sarah is in training, Stella stays with her father Thomas (Lars Eidinger), from whom Sarah is separated, and with her and her mother's psychiatrist Wendy (Toni Erdmann's Sandra Hüller), whose job it is to guide them both through this process.
Stella soon begins to understand the enormity of what's about to happen, and the potential for life-threatening accidents that haunt every mission into space. At the same time, Sarah starts feeling more attached. "You need to cut the cord," Mike advises, when Sarah's time spent with her daughter begins to distract her from her objective. There is a certain remoteness an astronaut must reach if they're to accept leaving their home planet for any amount of time, and all the dangers that come with that — a state of being near, while also being far away. Proxima is full of these quiet moments: Sarah and her crewmates camping in the woods, taking photos and videos of raindrops falling on the surface of the lake, packing small personal items into shoeboxes that can't exceed one kilogram.
Sarah's earthly attachment to her family is never proposed as any sort of weakness, though Mike chastises her for it from time to time. Green plays Sarah with a determined objectivity that makes her no less of the mother that she is. She loves her daughter, but she loves being an astronaut, too, and it isn't necessary for those two things to cancel each other out. Proxima avoids feeling overly maudlin while presenting its characters' emotions in a way that feels totally natural, a drama with its feet on the ground and its eyes on the stars.
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