My, how those past and future Oscar winners love to play groundbreaking astronauts soaring through space in movies and TV series. In just the past decade, the roster includes:
• Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in “Gravity” (2013).
• Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in “Interstellar” (2014).
• Sean Penn in “The First” (2018).
• Natalie Portman in “Lucy in the Sky” (2019).
• Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones in “Ad Astra” (2019).
Add to that list two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank, who headlines the elegiac and gorgeously photographed albeit sudsy space soap opera “Away,” a 10-part original series from Jason Katims (“Parenthood,” “Friday Night Lights”), premiered Sept. 4 on Netflix. (Season two has already been announced.) Filled with screen-popping visuals and never missing an opportunity for a dramatic cliffhanger, “Away” deserves extra points just for a karaoke scene in which two characters sing along with Elton John’s “Rocket Man” including the immortal line, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,” which is particularly apropos here because one of the characters is actually a mom who will be going to Mars on a three-year mission, and that ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids!
Hey. I didn’t claim “Away” is subtle. Consider the collection of stock characters accompanying Swank’s Cmdr. Emma Green aboard the Atlas on humankind’s first trip to Mars, which will launch from the moon. We have the gruff, vodka-swilling Russian cosmonaut and engineer Misha (Mark Ivanir), who tells Emma from the get-go he doesn’t trust her leadership instincts; the robotically efficient Chinese chemist Lu (Vivian Wu), who seems incapable of even considering cracking a smile; the sweet-natured rookie space traveler/botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), born in Ghana and raised in England; and the quiet and loyal Ram (Ray Panthaki), an air force fighter pilot from India.
Gee, I wonder if this diverse group from different corners of the planet will butt heads from time to time but eventually realize they have to trust one another if they’re going to survive this extremely dangerous and controversial mission while the whole world is watching?
“Away” slingshots back and forth from impressively rendered scenes aboard the Atlas, with the astronauts floating about, literally and figuratively, to life on Earth (which seems to be in present day). The always steady Josh Charles plays Emma’s husband, Matt, a scientist who’s overseeing the day-to-day mechanics of the mission until he suffers a near-fatal stroke, and Talitha Bateman does a fine job carrying an emotionally heavy load as teenage daughter Alexis, who’s about the greatest kid ever as she copes with having a paralyzed dad and a mom who is on her way to Mars and won’t be home for three years, if ever.
At times, “Away” reminded me of the TV series “Lost,” in that each of the main characters is given a flashback episode in which we learn about their upbringing, their family ties, the struggles they’ve endured and the obstacles they’ve overcome before they were chosen for the ultimate team. Turns out the more we know about these folks, the more we like them and understand their failings.
Nearly every episode ends with an old-fashioned “Tune in next week to find out what happens” cliffhanger, often involving yet another emergency on the Atlas that has Emma and her team scrambling to fix it – or die trying. The musical cues are shamelessly heart-tugging, but dang it if they don’t work, whether it’s Joni Mitchell’s “River” (“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees”), previously heard in “Love, Actually” and “The Politician,” among other dramas, or Matt playing “Clair de Lune” over the phone for Emma. (The phone service aboard the Atlas is amazing – much better than when you try to call your buddy who lives six blocks away.)
Hilary Swank, often clad in the slightly gratuitous underwear ensembles favored by female space explorers from Sigourney Weaver in “Alien” to Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” delivers a solid, grim-faced performance as Emma, who sometimes looks like she’s clenching her teeth just to keep from crying about the situation back home or exploding at a crew member who has just messed up. We believe in Emma, just as the initially skeptical crew comes to believe in her.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with the standouts being Mark Ivanir as Misha, whose backstory is surprisingly touching, and Ato Essandoh’s Kwesi, who has a lot going on behind that sunny exterior.
Like the Atlas itself, “Away” is a beautiful machine that stalls and sputters from time to time but builds momentum as it reaches for the heavens.