Ever since the heady days of the Space Race, it’s been a mutual agreement that space exploration is to be used by humanity only for peaceful endeavours. In fact, there’s an Outer Space Treaty (signed in 1967 and still in force today) that declares outer space a true neutral zone, in that any exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and shall be free for exploration and use by all of mankind.
Extrapolating from that, we can reasonably say that (barring any Watchmen level scheme) the one thing to theoretically unite the various countries of Earth would be a shared scientific mission in space. This is the central premise to Netflix’s new series, Away. We find ourselves, along with five of the world’s most decorated astronauts and scientists, at the cusp of a three-year mission to Mars.
Taking place in an unspecified not-so-distant future, five nations have teamed up in a mission to land the first humans safely on Mars. NASA’s representative, Emma Green (Hilary Swank) is the commander of the mission. ISRO provides Green’s second-in-command, Air Force fighter pilot and the mission’s medical expert, Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki). Roscosmos has leant out Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), their most decorated cosmonaut and by far the most experienced of the crew, as chief engineer.
Chemist Lu Wang (Vivian Wu) represents CNSA who is, by international agreement, to be the first person to step foot on Mars. Rounding out the crew is UKSA’s Dr Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), Ghanaian native, space newbie and the mission’s botanist, who harbours a dream to grow plants on Mars. Rather infuriatingly, they pronounce Kwesi as Kway-see the entire time, but I suppose that’s what happens when the mission language is American English.
Considering the pressures of a groundbreaking three-year mission with very little guarantee of survival, let alone success, each crew member brings along a fair amount of emotional tension. From missing the people they left behind or contemplating the sacrifices it took to be part of the mission, to having five members of vastly different cultures share a very cramped space and increasingly conflicting ideologies. Of course, there’s also the potential that the incredibly complex ship taking them to Mars could suffer a catastrophic breakdown… It’s a pressure cooker, for sure.
After the introductory episode, Away becomes somewhat episodic. Each issue that the crew has to face and overcome ties into one of their backstories, as we are shown in flashbacks. The crew all have their chance to be the focus, but none more than Commander Green, being the main player as well as the heaviest hitter, acting-wise. Oh, and Executive Producer.
I would like to say Emma is a complicated character, but she’s as no-nonsense and straightforward as you’d expect a Commander to be. Except for when she’s making snap decisions, endangering herself for the mission, occasionally mistrusting her crew, and pining about missing her family. Though I can’t fault Swank’s dedication to the role, her performance is as good as you’d expect from an Oscar winner, there are some questionable choices that her character makes.
You’d think that a show leaning in a science-fiction direction would have you suspending your disbelief, and you’d be right, but probably not in the way you’d think. Yes, there is there some questionable science, but the main way in which you’re going to say “that’s not realistic” is on the decisions that the crew makes. Unrealistic choices, snap judgements unbefitting of highly trained astronauts and inflated egos. It’s there to create drama, but you feel like in real life these people wouldn’t have passed the psychometric tests necessary for something like this.
A lot of viewers may hold Away to the same standard as The Martian in terms of scientifically accurate space survival. Away is as beautiful and well put-together, though maybe not as accurate. There are some assumed technological leaps needed to facilitate the plot, though they are vaguely explained. You can also tell that a lot of research went into the show, though in execution, concepts and theories are inconsistently applied. The actors spent months in harnesses and under the tutelage of real-life astronauts, training to realistically float around their ship, but in other points crying in zero-G results in the tears rolling down your face and dripping off your chin instead of floating away as well.
Therein, I suppose, lies the rub. Away hits so many highs, yet it’s constantly veering off into inconsistent territory. Not only with the science, but with the main focus of the show, the drama. There are so many different ideas that could have been used and situations the crew could have been in that would have made Away even better, but instead, we are dealt the cliché cards of shoehorned romances and unnecessary domestic drama.
That’s not to say that the human aspect of the show is dull. Again, though it’s inconsistent, Away does get some of the drama right. There are very genuine emotions throughout most of the show. For example, the conversations that take place between Emma and her daughter have an emotional authenticity that other dialogues don’t manage to pull off. There’s also a lot to appreciate in the multi-cultural setting, with a decent amount of dialogue taking place in the crew’s native languages along with a good look into the unique burdens each crew member carries from their own societies.
There’s also a good side serving of white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat thrills as the crew faces various issues between the ship and between themselves. For the most part, these sequences are heavily fact-based and masterfully filmed, even if the scenario the crew are in is the result of an idiotic, manufactured decision. Regardless of how they get there, the result is what counts.
In the end, Away hits its highs often enough that it kept me invested and on the edge of my seat. It’s polished, cinematic and brought to life by an incredibly talented team including Jason Katims, Matt Reeves and lead by the directorial vision of Ed Zwick. An occasional lack of attention to detail might be frustrating, but the journey is epic enough to sweep that aside.
Away premieres on Netflix on September 4, 2020
Last Updated: August 28, 2020