Director: Christopher Winterbauer
Writer: Max Taxe
Cast: Cole Sprouse, Lana Condor
Cinematographer: Brendan Uegama
Editor: Harry Jierjian
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
So many recent space movies — Arrival (2016), Interstellar (2014), First Man (2018), Ad Astra (2019) — have used the template as a means of exploring grief, unresolved trauma and loss, converting the act of leaving Earth into a metaphor for outrunning one's own internal churn, that it's refreshing to find a film that reduces the grandiose nature of interstellar travel to a backdrop for a sweet, frothy love story instead. Moonshot may begin with the lofty ambitions of its protagonist Walt (Cole Sprouse), for whom the opportunity to travel to Mars as part of a private company's crew is a means of discovering his place in the universe, but the film quickly brings him right back down to Earth by revealing that he lacks any of the required skills that would get him the job. Thirty seven rejected applications later, he runs into a girl at a college party and falls in love with her over the course of that night, only to find out that she's leaving for Mars in the morning. His mission to get on a space shuttle then isn't so much about self-discovery anymore, but about the pursuit of a fleeting love that he believes can crystallise into something more permanent.
For the studious, wealthy Sophie (Lana Condor), on the other hand, the chance to leave Earth has all the significance of a homecoming instead, the opportunity to see her Mars-based boyfriend again after a year of long-distance. Unwittingly tricked into helping Walt sneak onboard, she must help him remain undetected for the duration of their 55-day-long trip or risk being sent back to Earth and permanently put on a no-fly list. The two attempt to lay low and blend in by posing as a couple onboard, one of the many, many narrative contrivances which pull off being charming and delightful, largely because of the easy chemistry the leads share. Sprouse is charming as a character consistently described as "average", using his people skills to accomplish what his (lack of) intellect cannot, while Condor's enduring onscreen persona, a mix of naivete and an older-than-her-years wisdom that she first displayed in the To All The Boys… series, seems especially suited to the romcom template.
"Getting closer always changes the view," says Walt at one point, a philosophy the movie shares, using the vastness of space as a setting for a story that focuses on the intimacy that develops between two strangers sharing an enclosed area. Even the film's more futuristic inventions are only wheeled out in service of the love story. When Walt uses facial recognition software, it's only to figure out if his girlfriend is genuinely excited about him coming to Mars. In another scene, he's made to give a lecture about the possibility of terraforming the planet, which becomes an opportunity for him to examine the ways people mould themselves to the ideals that their partners hold. Even the film's digs at the cruelties of privately owned companies are handled with a light touch, turning their idiosyncrasies into fodder for viral material back on Earth.
Moonshot becomes a tad more serious towards the end, requiring the characters to make some tough decisions and putting their respective love stories on the backburner in favour of focusing on their internal struggles but the sweetness lingers till the end credits roll. It's not so much about the place you're going, the movie suggests, but the places that make you feel like you really belong.
Recommendation in collaboration with Amazon Prime Video