essay by Dan F. Santos
A T S F goes further
There's a strange assumption about space-based science-fiction. At its most basic the genre is about dreaming of the future. But when you dig below the surface of the classics it turns out to be more than just that. Dreaming is just the gateway to asking deeper questions about where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be. Even at its darkest it is about the hope for a better tomorrow and a better us.
I grew up in love with dreaming of the stars. My introduction to worlds beyond our own were old episodes of Star Trek and a chance purchase of an old VHS at a garage sale when I was nine. That movie was Stanley Kubrick's classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Honestly, I didn't understand the thematic elements of the film at the time but I just knew there was something more under the surface. More than a quarter century later, I am not sure I understand it any better but it is why I repeatedly watch the film. The aesthetics drew me in completely and I just connected with it. A T S F reminds me of those early formative years.
The screenplay is full of big ideas, set pieces, and visual cues that are both fresh and vividly imaginative. For a science-fiction fan the level of detail found throughout A T S F satisfies my need for easter eggs and elements to deconstruct. As a film critic I appreciate how none of those details get in the way of story. Instead, they are used to paint a plausible picture of an alternate world. A world where the space race was a much grander endeavour.
Aurore de Blois' screenplay understands what elevates the best science-fiction above the mundane and turns them into classics. A T S F is more than spaceships, it is about humanity and the human condition. Denis Villeneuve understood that when he made Arrival which left me gobsmacked when I left the theater -- so, too, does this script.
There is a growing trend in Hollywood moving towards more sophisticated genre films with relatable characters. Even the current superhero movies do well because actors and filmmakers have had many movies to grow and flesh out characters. They are more refined than most critics give them credit for. The characters found within the pages of A T S F are completely rounded three-dimensional people.
A T S F paints an extraordinarily hopeful picture of humanity set in a fascinating world. But it is the characters who jump off the page as fully realized human beings that draws us into the story. These are just people, like you and me, trying to live their lives and who are capable of making mistakes. They get angry, are impulsive, and sometimes even hate each other. A wonderful dichotomy exists in this script that gives us both a better world and flawed characters.
We are imperfect creatures always striving to be better and so are the characters here. We fear the unknown but our curiosity draws us to it. That's why we look at the stars with such wonder and sadness. The vast void between stars reminds us of our own loneliness. So many of us dream of connecting worlds together. Just like every human being has an urge to connect with another and the space between each of us can feel like endless emptiness. The protagonist Jo-Anne Kepler is a star in both her heroics and her suffering, and we as an audience resonate with that.
A T S F is more than a science-fiction story about space travel, it is a story about all of us. That we can do great things together even if we don't see eye-to-eye. We don't need to be perfect in order to be better, we just need to go out there and try to be our best. In the end A T S F reminds me of the last line in Tennyson's epic poem Ulysses. It reminds us always "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." That is what it means to be a hero, that is what it means to dream. That is what it means to be human.