Away review: Netflix-Hilary Swank’s mission-to-Mars saga puts the soap back in space opera
In Away, the thrills of space travel are side-lined in favour of This Is Us-flavoured family melodrama.
Matthew McConaughey did it in Interstellar. Ryan Gosling in First Man. Brad Pitt more recently in Ad Astra. Now, Hilary Swank ventures into space leaving her loved ones behind in Netflix's space weepie, Away. Emma Green (Swank) has been waiting for this moment all her life: she has been chosen to lead the first manned mission to Mars. She couldn't be more thrilled. Yet at the same time, she couldn't be more distressed. Being a part of this historic mission means she will be away from her teenage daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman) and her husband Matt (Josh Charles) for three years. And it's a mission where returning home isn't a guarantee.
Once the rocket lifts off, reconciling work and long-distance family life turns out to be a bigger challenge than Emma had foreseen. Out in deep space, accompanying her on the journey to Mars are some of the world's most qualified scientists: there's Ram (Ray Panthaki), her Indian co-pilot and a surgeon; Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), the British botanist full of neuroses; Lu (Vivian Wu), the reticent Chinese chemist; and Misha (Mark Ivanir), the grumpy Russian engineer and occasional comic relief. Her traveling companions may be highly qualified scientists, but they lack a chief qualification required to make this mission a success: teamwork.
For such a momentous chapter in history, you would think these nations would have assembled a crew who would get along, or at least resolved their differences before they got on the ship. But no. Interpersonal conflicts keep flaring up, and Emma, as commander, must put out these fires, reminding them they're working towards a common goal. Each episode, the show introduces a new life-threatening complication that comes with space travel to put their conflicts aside and work together. As not every crew member has unwavering faith in her ability as a leader, Emma's test also becomes one where she must convince them her decisions won't cost them their lives. So, she must lead from the front, always, under the watchful eyes of the NASA mission control centre and the whole world watching on TV.
Though Away shoots for Mars, it gets stuck somewhere in Earth's orbit. In addition to the sacrifices required of the astronauts, the show also focuses on those of their families anxiously waiting for them at home, living each day with the fear of never being able to embrace them again. Her husband Matt was himself an astronaut who could have been part of the Mars mission alongside her, if not for an underlying genetic disorder which took him out of the running. When he suffers a stroke, Emma feels guilty for not being by his side. It's a work-family dilemma still faced by many women in a society which deems it incompatible. But Matt never questions her priorities or guilt-trips her on the weight of her absence. In fact, he urges her not to abandon the mission even as he lies sick and barely conscious in the hospital. Yet, it is Emma who torments herself with guilt, owing to the preconditioned sense of familial responsibility society has hammered into its women.
Exploring space travel through a maternal lens, Away shows a mother remotely managing the life of her teenage daughter through a screen. Alexis deals with her mother's absence in the most teenage way: finding a dicey outlet for her angst. In her case, it's dropping grades, daredevil boys and dirt bikes, and as you would expect, it's not the most parent-friendly combination. So, drama ensues. Only, in a story where astronauts are embarking on a most perilous mission towards the final frontier, teen melodrama should take the back seat but annoyingly keeps jumping up to the front.
It's not all about Emma and her family though. We are also treated to the backstories of the other crew members through formative memories shown in flashbacks. These clue us in on their Earthly lives. Ram became estranged from his family after the death of his brother, and the ghosts of guilt still haunt him. Yu is not as heartless as she lets on: she is in love with a woman unbeknownst to her husband and son, and fears it may be used against her by the Chinese government. Misha's contentious nature comes partly from his seniority, but mostly his remorse over abandoning his young daughter to serve his Matushka Rossiya (Russian motherland). Kwesi was born in Ghana where he lost both his parents, before being adopted by a British Jewish family. He brings in the faith element to this grand science experiment. In critical moments of the mission, the crew turn to him for prayer, for hope, and for miracle in a journey full of obstacles. He eventually becomes the glue that holds the team together, making them realise they're now a family who must rely on each other to survive.
Away doesn't really indulge in the inherent special-effects exhibition that outer space-set dramas tend to offer. Aside from two EVAs (spacewalk) undertaken on repair missions, the thrills of space travel are side-lined in favour of This Is Us-flavoured family melodrama. Philosophical reflections on man's place in the universe make way for cosmic doses of sentimentality. The show would have got lost in space's zero gravity if not for Swank, who grounds the show in an emotional reality. The restlessness of a mother who may never see her daughter again, the helplessness of a wife who can't help her hospitalised husband, and the constant distress of a leader whose mistakes can lead to large-scale disaster — all feel strangely familiar, doesn't it? Away somehow captures the anxiety of those forced to keep away from their loved ones, and those forced to confine themselves in a small space without the possibility of going outside, in the middle of a pandemic. Judging Away in a vacuum however, for a show about mankind's greatest adventure, it is narratively unadventurous. Just like Lost in Space, Another Life and Space Force. Netflix, we have a problem.
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