A Space Program

A Space Program ★★★★½

Originally posted this as part of my SXSW coverage in 2015 for NextProjection.com nextprojection.com/2015/05/30/sxsw-space-program-review-np-approved/

Count this as my favorite discovery at SXSW. A Space Program will polarize audiences. In fact, many people walked out during the World Premiere screening. The mockumentary/performance piece is sci-fi by way of Wes Anderson. Writers and directors Van Neistat and Tom Sachs constructed the basics required for space travel: space shuttle, space suits, communication devices and an elaborate control room all in the style of 1970s NASA. For example, the members of the control room wear their hair short, wear horned rimmed glasses and drink a lot of coffee.

The mission is to send two women to Mars and to answer the question, “Are we alone?” The audience is treated to introductions from every member of the team. The introductions may throw off some of the audience because the engineers talk about building a spacecraft out of fragile materials like plywood and other materials that would not survive space travel. There should be no remaining questions about the tone, style and direction once the shuttle launch sequence is over. By this point you’re in or you’re out, hopefully the former. A Space Program serves as an artistic performance piece with many moving parts. Everyone involved is invested 100%, following Sachs’s and Neistat’s vision with such devotion that for a while the audience will forget they’re watching a performance.

The set and spacecraft design is meticulous. Sachs is a renowned contemporary artist. Part of the fun of watching this film involves recognizing childhood toys used as part of mission control’s elaborate control center. The spacecraft and panels appear basic on the surface but much work went into each piece. Wes Anderson is a filmmaker known for attention to detail in his films and these sets feel reminiscent of one of his films. Not to take credit from either artist, that’s meant as an observation and as a compliment. For example, a landing procedure is handled by the old Atari game, Lunar Lander. The landing sequence is absolutely hysterical as the film treats it as a major set piece. The sequence is funny, suspenseful and highly effective. There are more set pieces like this that we have seen from the likes of 60s/70s era NASA films. There is no doubt that Sachs is winking at the era, having a lot of fun with it but never disrespecting that era.

The entire performance takes place on a stage with a live audience. Remember that iconic sequence when Michael Bay launched his oil drillers into space in Armageddon? Sachs puts his spin on that sequence by using simple tools such as a miniature rocket model with a man firing a blowtorch to simulate the takeoff shots. The audience is also treated to hand-drawn shots that would otherwise serve as storyboard in other films, but those drawings serve as the shot on the big screen. Some of this is also handled by a man wearing black gloves and a long sleeve black shirt to simulate a spacecraft flying in space. Again, this sounds absurd but it works beautifully on screen.

Those craving a complex, character, dialogue driven narrative may be disappointed with A Space Program. All members of the mission are important, yet there’s little room to pick a favorite. Each person is vital to the mission and each gets their time to shine. The mission and story are simple: send two women to Mars and bring them home. Many of the space exploration beats are present: friction in the spacecraft, landing on an alien planet and the suspense of whether they’ll make it home. The execution of each beat is so unorthodox; you cannot help but lean closer and pay attention.

It’s a challenge to describe this movie without giving away spoilers. No matter how blatant the approach of the filmmaker, satire often misses with many audiences. A Space Program is a wonderful film, packed with laughter and quiet, human moments. This is bold, original filmmaking that plays off like a breath of fresh air. This is one of those films that should be brought up when any film lover quips, “Hollywood has run out of ideas.” A Space Program will divide audiences but if you’re all aboard for the ride you’re in for one hell of an experience.

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