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Away review: Netflix and Hilary Swank’s touching take on The Martian

Away review: Netflix and Hilary Swank’s touching take on The Martian

In Netflix’s new science-fiction drama Away, every conflict is personal, and so is every solution. For instance: When an equipment malfunction leads to a water shortage during the first manned mission to Mars, the crew of the Atlas spacecraft is forced to abandon the ship’s garden. But one plant stays green as the rest wither away, leading two of the astronauts to debate whether it’s a genuine miracle, or the result of an unknown biological adaptation.

They’re both wrong. Mission commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank) has been dedicating some of her own water rations to keeping the plant alive as a symbol of hope, and a way to fulfill their goal of planting life on Mars. That revelation gets to the core of what makes Away stand out from other science-fiction shows. The most important thing to both the mission and show’s success isn’t technology or action. It’s how the crew members relate to each other and the people they’ve left behind on Earth.

The 10 episodes of the show’s first season, which were all released on Sept. 4, primarily follow Emma as she sets off to lead a multinational, three-year mission to land on Mars, then return home. Supporting her in every way from Earth is her husband Matt (Josh Charles of The Good Wife), who wanted to be on the mission himself, but was removed from contention due to a degenerative neurological condition. He’s left working in mission control and taking care of their teenage daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman).

Hilary Swank, in full spacesuit, sits staring on a bench in Netflix’s space series Away.

Photo: Diyah Pera / Netflix

While most science fiction centers around world-spanning conflicts, Away creator and writer Andrew Hinderaker keeps the stakes remarkably small. Only the five-person crew of the Atlas is ever at risk, and if their mission fails, the cost would mostly be that future exploratory missions would become less likely. There’s no existential threat, except the vague idea that colonizing Mars would be a big step for humanity, and could teach us science that would be useful for surviving climate change.

The smaller scope makes Away feel like a series-length version of Gravity or The Martian, particularly leaning into the latter’s rosy view of NASA as a collection of brilliant minds ready to solve the most complicated problems to keep astronauts safe. Without a cosmic threat or real villains, the show lacks much dramatic momentum, but the strong characters still propel it forward.

Emma is often in conflict with veteran cosmonaut Misha (Mark Ivanir), who believes that having logged more time in space than anyone else makes him more suitable to command. Chinese astronaut Lu Wang (Vivian Wu) also provides a foil for Emma with her ability to come off as entirely detached from the husband and child she’s left behind, even as Emma agonizes about how every decision she makes is likely to impact her family. They’re joined by Kwesi (Ato Essandoh of Altered Carbon), a botanist and first-time astronaut whose awkwardness and newbie status bring some needed comic relief, and Ram (Ray Panthaki), Emma’s loyal second in command and obligatory romantic temptation.

Adam Irigoyen and Talitha Eliana Bateman lie under a blanket in a truck bed and look up at the night sky in Netflix’s series Away.

Photo: Diyah Pera / Netflix

While every episode alternates between Emma’s family at home, mission control, and whatever crisis has popped up on the Atlas, each character also gets their moment in the spotlight in flashbacks showing the path that led them to space and the people they’ve left behind. The framing device popularized by Lost works well here to bring depth to characters who could have ended up as stereotypes. The framing also specifically tackles issues like sexism, patriotism, and the toll the pursuit of greatness has on every other aspect of a person’s life.

In one episode, Kwesi takes off his boot and a giant chunk of skin from his foot peels off. When he brings it to Ram, the ship’s doctor explains that some things atrophy in space. The scene is played for laughs, with Kwesi immediately asking what that could mean for his penis, but what withers the most are the relationships with the people the crew has left behind. Misha effectively abandoned his daughter to serve his country and ego. While he begs her for forgiveness before every spacewalk, he doesn’t really know how to make things right. Lu became an astronaut to prove herself to a father who wanted a son, but being the first person to set foot on Mars means leaving her chance for real love and happiness behind. Emma is constantly plagued by guilt and fear about everything she’s missing out on.

The flashbacks work better than other gimmicks Hinderaker employs to keep the story grounded. While there are plenty of video calls between the crew and characters on Earth in the early episodes, the show eventually bows to the limits of science as Atlas moves closer towards Mars, relegating communication to emails and audio recordings. Yet Matt still shows up on the ship in Emma’s imagination, so viewers can see the actor as he reads his tender messages out loud, or lets his wife talk herself through a conflict.

Away emphasizes the unique burdens placed on women who want to have it all, via Melissa Ramirez (Monique Gabriela Curnen), who gave up on becoming an astronaut after her husband abandoned her when their daughter was born with Down syndrome. When Emma got pregnant, she saw Melissa as a cautionary tale, and was afraid she’d lose her shot at reaching the stars. While Matt was likely instrumental to Emma being able to avoid making similar sacrifices, season 1 doesn’t devote quite enough time to explaining how she was able to balance motherhood and her extremely demanding career.

Hilary Swank clings to a ladder in zero gravity in the Netflix series Away

Photo: Diyah Pera / Netflix

Away also provides a particularly nuanced examination of disability through Hinderaker’s scripts and casting choices. Melissa’s daughter Cassie (Felicia Patti) is a fantastic addition to the somewhat soapy family plots on Earth, cutting through all attempts at emotional obfuscation with her blunt, earnest questions. She’s also an audience stand-in, repeatedly asking for explanations about the science in play. There are multiple wheelchair-bound characters, including one played by a partially-paralyzed actor, allowing for contrast between characters striving to regain mobility, and people who have accepted their physical situations and redirected their frustrations toward the way the rest of the world fails to accommodate them. A recurring theme of the show is that broken things aren’t useless, and no matter how a given character is damaged, they find ways to provide value not in spite of their disabilities, but partially through the way new physical demands have pushed them to adapt.

While much of the show involves characters just sitting around and talking, Hinderaker still makes excellent use of the setting to provide stunning visuals. The dialogue stops to allow quiet moments of wonder, as solar panels unfurl like fins, or Emma and Ram take in a frozen spray of ice crystals on a spacewalk. These are beautiful, inspiring moments, taking the characters and audience out of the more relatable personal conflicts, and letting them just revel in the incredible possibilities of human space travel.

Genre shows sometimes suffer from the mixed burdens of providing plenty of action while also humanizing their characters, making any relationship-driven plots feel tacked-on. Away focuses almost entirely on interpersonal drama rather than ever-escalating threats in this first season, laying the groundwork for the story’s potential future. Season 1 doesn’t have any of the jarring contrasts of big thrills coupled with intimate scenes. But it also never reaches the exciting energy viewers might be expecting from science fiction. What it does deliver is a soothingly low-key story about people’s power to come together and achieve amazing things, a feat that might actually be just as challenging as fighting aliens or diverting asteroids.

All 10 episodes of Away are available to stream now on Netflix.

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