The First review: What if Sean Penn starred in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar?
Cast - Sean Penn, Natascha McElhone, Anna Jacoby-Heron, LisaGay Hamilton, Hannah Ware, James Ransone
Rating - 4/5
The trailers, clips and virtually all promotional material for The First - including the poster, which bravely ignores the involvement of star Sean Penn and instead shows a rocket blasting off into space - have been misrepresenting the show. This isn’t unusual - many would argue that the very purpose of advertising is to falsify facts. But in this instance, the move has had a counter-intuitive effect.
For example, The First isn’t a show about humanity’s - ahem - first manned mission to Mars - well, it is sort of about that, but not in the ways that you’d expect. Think of it as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar - a difficult film that encapsulates everything that is right and wrong about the legendary filmmaker - but with its first act stretched out into roughly eight hours.
So instead of enjoying a brave crew’s epic adventure in space - the hopes of eight billion people resting upon the shoulders of five men and women - what we get is a story about the journey before the journey. We’re invited into the crew’s homes as they fight with their spouses, we’re put in the shoes of their family, who have had to make great sacrifices, and we’re introduced to the inherent danger of the mission they’re about to embark upon.
Watch the trailer for The First here
It isn’t as unbearable as it sounds. In fact, The First is a staggering achievement, a blindingly ambitious show that is as vast in its scope as it is intimate in its storytelling - a show that is capable of eliciting a childlike sense of wonder and delivering such ponderous gems as ‘Happiness is death by complacency’. And all this despite the lies we’d been told. If you can manage it, try watching it without exposing yourself to those radioactive trailers.
Here’s everything you need to know: The First is set around 2030, on an Earth that is no longer lurching but sprinting towards its demise. Space travel has been privatised, and is seen in most quarters as an unnecessary distraction from the ‘real’ issues - global warming, depletion of renewable resources, poverty and homelessness.
Creator Beau Willimon - you know him from House of Cards - challenges these ideas by bringing the same idealism that was so critical to Interstellar, the stubborn belief that there is a point to shooting humans into space on the off chance that they discover something that they are perhaps not even aware of. It’s a valid concern, one that Nolan effectively answered in his movie.
Cynicism, the show seems to suggest, is almost as big a threat to our survival as climate change. As one senator asks Natascha McElhone’s Elon Musk-type futurist, “You go on about inspiration and science and technology, but how does that help a five-year-old with no school lunch programme?”
But Willimon’s vision of the future is remarkably well-conceived - we’ve completely discarded cellphones and switched to near-invisible earpieces -- everything is voice-controlled; and the roads seem to be populated by what are only concept cars in 2018.
And refreshingly, he doesn’t fall into the same trap that seems to consume so many other movies about the future - classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Blade Runner imagined a world that was far-fetched to the point of being fantasy. Sure, many of the predictions Kubrick made in 2001 - especially technologically - have in fact come true. But not in the year 2001. However, the concepts that The First imagines could very well become a reality in a decade.
Willimon’s future is more subtle, and therefore, more believable. We’re told that several major coastal cities have been wiped out, and although not a single foot is set on another planet, there is always a tone of desperation in McElhone’s voice when she talks about Mars. Just like the scientists of our times who insist that we’ve already crossed the point of no return, she seems to have convinced herself that colonising Mars is humanity’s only hope.
So she enlists astronaut Tom Hagerty, the 14th man to set foot on the moon, played by two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn. Hagerty was at the forefront of renewed wave of interest in space travel, decades after the Apollo programme was abandoned essentially for being pointless, thanks in part to US President Nixon.
Hagerty is a singularly focussed man - like Matthew McConaughey’s Coop in Interstellar and Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He’s someone whose single-minded dedication to his obsessions can often be mistaken for an addiction, or, as his troubled teenage daughter sees it, an excuse to literally run away from his problems.
Penn is, as always, a commanding screen presence. And his already magnificent persona is accentuated by what he has done to himself. Now, I don’t as a rule talk about actors’ physical appearances, but Penn’s 58-year-old body is absolutely ripped - sinewy and almost as painful to look at as it must have been for him to cultivate it. It’s annoyingly distracting from his performance, which is a delicate mix of intensity and restraint. His scenes with Denise, his daughter, played by the phenomenal Anna Jacoby-Heron, are so wrought with real emotion that you’ll stop complaining about the lack of space travel. The two of them are the essence of what the show is about: Not the space up in the sky, but between human beings.
But when The First finally lifts off - especially in the season finale - it is a sight to behold, stunningly shot by Adam Stone (Jeff Nichols’ cinematographer) and scored with a hint of Hans Zimmer by Colin Stetson. Juxtaposed against the majesty of infinite space - Tree of Life-style - the beauty of life is celebrated. I imagine the upcoming Damien Chazelle movie, First Man, will also tread similar ground.
It was, after all, Neil Armstrong who said about looking at the Earth from the moon, “I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
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