Hilary Swank Promises to Bring Life to Mars in Netflix’s ‘Away’

Netflix’s expansive planet-hopping series “Away” begins on the moon, where the crew is preparing to launch the world’s inaugural trip to Mars. We don’t quite know the year. It doesn’t seem too far in the future, except the interstellar Wi-Fi is incredible. The series was created by playwright and “Penny Dreadful” writer Andrew Hinderaker, who based it on Chris Jones’ 2014 GQ article about astronaut Scott Kelly’s year-long stint in space with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. The mission was an important predictive indicator of interplanetary travel. Its goal was to examine crew member performance after 12 months in a low-gravity environment. It measured functional, behavioral health, visual impairment, metabolic, microbial, and the human factors of how astronauts interact with their environment aboard the International Space Station.

“All this science I don’t understand,” Elton John sings on one of his signature hits, “Rocketman.” This goes to the center of “Always.” The very first incident which occurs on the Atlas almost turns into a disaster because U.S. Commander Emma Green, played with a capable depth by Hilary Swank, misreads science. She knows it, but not as well as the ship’s chemist Lu (Vivian Wu), who actually saves the day, or night, as it’s always dark on either side of the moon. Netflix’s “Away” is a game of solitaire with multiple players, who each count cards. Set aboard the first manned trip to Mars, the international crew of experts each measure progress against isolation. They may be a team onboard, but they are all being staked by their nations and must emerge triumphant. America put up most of the cash, as India’s Ram (Ray Panthaki) points out. In the race through space, he’s also the one who clings most tightly to the team spirit. 

The bulk of the drama takes place aboard the Atlas, over the course of an eighteen-month long journey to Mars, and it begins with friction and distrust. These people have to work and live together for three years and they can’t get over a little too much sweat. Emma has to win her team over one by one. The most effective sequences are aboard the ship where the ensemble acting flies in zero gravity. Each episode highlights a different character, but the best scenes come when the crew works together, whether putting on a puppet show or disassembling a water filtration system. One of the most impressive segments comes in an off-duty moment where crew members are pulling shots of Misha’s (Mark Ivanir) space brewed vodka out of mid-air.

Every episode opens with a loving shot of the Atlas, on its three-year mission, like the Enterprise opens each episode of “Star Trek” and was cinematically scrutinized in that franchise’s first motion picture. The ship is impressive, but space is awesome. The crew of the Atlas loves looking at the stars. Who doesn’t? The stellar regions are exquisitely captured in such long, luxurious panning shots it could almost be called astronomy porn. The director is positively fetishistic over it, as are the commander, crew and anyone on earth who have heard of any of the world-renowned characters. Emma Green’s mom saved up for months to get her a Wal-Mart telescope when she was young. Commander Green’s daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman) worries whether her mom’s mission will ruin the skies for her. Ram is positively awestruck on his first moonwalk. He orgasms two steps after leaving the airlock. Those aren’t frozen water particles which are being collected to stave off dehydration. They are freeze dried fragments of his soul. 

Green has dreamt about being a part of the first mission to Mars since she was a little girl. She became an ace pilot while pregnant and an astronaut over what must have been insurmountable odds. For the most part Swank is positively grim in the part. She is single-minded, though not enough to suit Lu’s tastes, and dutiful to rank and file, but most of all Swank plays her as a working mother. “Away” is a family drama. Each crew member brings family histories aboard ship, usually through predictable and somewhat generic flashbacks. British botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh) was orphaned because his parents died of dysentery and he has a lifelong devotion to water and his adoptive Jewish faith. The second-in-command and ship surgeon, Ram began his trip to Mars as a child battling typhus. The Russian cosmonaut Mischa traded his family to become a space dog.

The Green family gets the strongest focus. Sean Penn recently played a father who left his family behind to explore Mars on Hulu’s “The First.” Emma weighs her historic place in the cosmos against her guilt about leaving her family on terra firma. Her daughter Lexi rides motorbikes to feel alive, just like her mother. Alexis becomes her mother while taking care of her dad, the ranking NASA engineer Matt (Josh Charles), while he is in recovery. She takes on the role and tries to shoulder the responsibility and do the work. Alexis, who everyone calls Lexi, still finds time to rebel, but her budding relationship with a new boyfriend Isaac (Adam Irigoyen) plays out like an after-school special. I’m glad she didn’t get pregnant. 

But it gets soapier. The communications head of the Chinese ground crew, Mei (Nadia Hatta), who teaches Lu how to speak English at Karaoke bars, is cruelly reassigned. One of the crew gets a crush on Commander Green. Emma’s best friend develops an interest in Matt, and Cassie (Felicia Patti) looks like she is really getting used to having Lexi as a sister. For all the vastness of space, home and ground crew life feels a little too claustrophobic because Matt has to be all things to all people at all times. He’s the absentee father whose mind is always at Mission Control trying to make sure his wife doesn’t die in space, and he does it while grounded. “Away” is also a purposeful tearjerker. Every eight minutes it becomes “Terms of Endearment” in Space. The series owes as much as much to “Steel Magnolias” as it does to “Apollo 13,” “The Right Stuff,” or even “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” 

What is a trip through the stars without intrigue and suspense? The most compelling character in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was a computer. And the first reaction to the second incident of the trip to Mars is to reboot the system. Too much happens too soon. We know the mission won’t fail in the first two episodes because the season has a commitment of ten, and hasn’t been promoted as a return to earth story. They’re on their way to Mars. Still, every episode has its major crisis. They are usually accompanied by some catastrophe on the home front. Why settle for a malfunctioning solar panel when you can also throw in emergency surgery for Emma’s husband on earth? A particularly sketchy orbital maneuver has to be done just as Lexi is being rushed to an emergency room. A module touchdown has the extra emotional weight of main characters hearing the results of a medical diagnosis. Someone doesn’t come home one night, on this night of all nights. 

Even Kwesi would agree, science is God on “Away.” The show tries to solve real problems astronauts would face with real solutions at their disposal. I never thought about the effort it must take to get into a space suit until I saw this series. There are limitations to the human body, which we don’t know until we’re in space. Kwesi loses the heel of his foot because of atrophy. It just comes off. Ram doesn’t blink. The cosmonaut experiences space blindness in a more profound way than has ever been explored because the crew are the furthest in space anyone has been in space. He’s also the one who’s logged the most hours, more than any man, woman or monkey, as he says. His character shows the most growth. By the end, Mischa really is a Martian. 

“Away” indulges in many space travel clichés like rousing speeches, back office meetings, ground control cheers, perilous spacewalks, a slingshot maneuver, and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” They are all based in science fact. The series’ science fiction comes from implying this is something governments can accomplish. It looks for the hope in this moment, and offers the uplifting ideal that if the world can work together it can do impossible things, even with all the backbiting and nationalistic caricatures. Humanity is better when we rely on each other, just so long as international agreements determine which country’s representative gets to be the first person to set foot on Mars. 

The first image from the surface from Mars will probably be photo-bombed by the earthling with the most wealth, and the trip will most likely be privately funded by some billionaire consortium. Galactic travel is a growing business now and comedies like “Avenue 5” and “Space Force” may capture the essence of space with the appropriate modern cynicism. “Away” prefers to be the light in the darkness of the void of space. It is an ambitious project about an enormous undertaking, and it evokes a sense of hope and breathless awe. The nightmarish disaster scenarios make familiar resolutions more viscerally effective, as the audience learns some things are fated to burn up in the atmosphere and others are destined to touch down. The most compelling promise of the show, however, comes from Kwesi’s enthusiastically stated purpose: to turn the Red Planet green. 

Away” begins streaming Sept. 4 on Netflix.