In 2019, Hilary Swank and Netflix gave us one of the best (and most overlooked) films of the year in I Am Mother, so the idea of them working together again for the astronaut drama Away was promising.
Swank plays Emma Green, the American Commander of an international collaboration to travel to Mars that also involves astronauts from China, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. Away can be essentially classified in two sections.
The first part: each episode sees the astronauts dealing with some sort of malfunction in their ship (the Atlas) and rushing to find solutions in a life or death scenario. Even though the scientific elements in the show are… not terribly consistent (for instance, gravity seems to come and go inside the ship), these plots are handled with a pacing that’s agile enough to keep the viewer entertained.
The aforementioned situations test Emma’s leadership abilities with the rest of the crew. In theory, that should make for gripping tension and intimacy considering that we’re witnessing individuals in an isolated scenario millions of miles distanced from Earth and, by extension, everything they care about. Unfortunately, the characterization in the show isn’t consistent. The crew members in the Atlas frequently change their feelings towards Emma for no discernible reason, and the issues between them aren’t carried from episode to episode. This lack of a coherent throughline makes for thinly sketched characters despite a decent sense of chemistry within the cast. The writing attempts to flesh out the astronauts with flashbacks to their lives before the Atlas mission, but most of their development is executed through other characters describing them with lip service rather than finding a cinematic way to give us a sense of their motivations. It doesn’t help that the astronauts are rather reckless and impulsive, making you wonder why they were selected for this mission in the first place.
Hilary Swank elevates the proceedings by combining a fierce commanding tone and vulnerability. Swank has “integrity” written all over her, which makes Emma a watchable lead in spite of the shaky writing.
The other part of the show is the drama on Earth, which sees Matt and Alexis (Emma’s recently disabled husband and teenage daughter, respectively) trying to adjust to life in the process of the mission. This is easily the least interesting part of the show, not only because it lacks the stakes and visual appeal of space, but because it’s a maudlin melodrama that does nothing of note with its formulaic father-and-teenage-daughter beats. Matt doesn’t have much of a personality outside of being perpetually annoyed, and Alexis is a stereotypical troubled teenager trying to balance school and her relationship with her parents. Both Matt and Alexis are supposed to have a path of grief and acceptance to their new life conditions, but the writing never finds a way to turn it into an engrossing conflict.
If you have a space drama itch, Away does a reasonable job of scratching it thanks to solid production values (at least in the space scenes) and Hilary Swank’s valiant effort in the central role. But when it comes to capture the danger and wonder of space travel, as well as the emotional journey in the process, it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity.