posted Thursday 14 January 2016 @ 2:12 pm PDT
by Gary Westfahl
Note: if you don’t happen to live near the fifteen American theatres where 400 Days is opening on January 15 (listed here), you may find that the film is available through your cable services as a Video on Demand, which is how I watched the film. Indeed, this might be an ideal way to watch the film, since it is described as the intimate drama of four astronauts being confined in a small underground chamber for 400 days in order to test their ability to endure a lengthy space flight. And even when, inevitably, the film expands beyond that setting, it retains a quiet, claustrophobic aura, with no spectacular, IMAX-friendly special effects best observed on the big screen. While definitely a different sort of science fiction film, however, 400 Days is also a disappointing film, as it abruptly changes direction to follow a well-worn, very familiar path.
As you surely deduced, my title describes how one imagines writer-director Matt Osterman might have pitched the idea of 400 Days, in a stereotypically succinct fashion, to skeptical Hollywood executives. Like many pitches, no doubt, it is not entirely accurate, for there are few if any specific plot similarities between this film and the referenced classics. Yet the pitch would be broadly defensible, inasmuch as 400 Days begins like a realistic depiction of near-future astronauts and devolves into a standard-issue horror film. This is hardly a novel phenomenon: one could describe two recent films I reviewed, Pandorum (2009; review here) and Apollo 18 (2011; review here), in precisely those terms, and in my book The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), I devote one chapter to over twenty films and television programs from the 1950s and 1960s that follow the same trajectory, ranging from the respectable (The Quatermass Experiment , The Angry Red Planet ) to the risible (The Crawling Hand , Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster ).
The question to ponder is: why this pattern is so commonplace? To be sure, outer space is a frightening place to be, and films like Gravity (2013; review here) and The Martian (2015; review here) convincingly demonstrate just how horrifying it is to find oneself stranded in a freezing-cold environment lacking air, food, and water. And I suppose one could regard the incongruous appearance of menaces like rampaging zombies and homicidal crab monsters in those other films as metaphorical representations of the horrors of space, provided for audiences who cannot appreciate the subtler threat of a slow leak in a spaceship hull. Yet I suspect that something more disturbing is going on, a fundamental aversion to the basic argument characteristically embedded in the spacesuit film.
But before discussing how the film diverges from expectations, one should evaluate how it fulfills expectations – because, for much of its length, the film does address the issues it is supposed to be addressing: can a small group of people actually endure a space flight lasting more than a year, which would be essential for missions to other planets? What steps could engineers and administrators take to maximize their chances for success? Both 400 Days and The Martian, because of its occasional scenes on board the spaceship that journeys to Mars, can be viewed as a list of recommendations for any nation or company planning extensive space initiatives, and even older films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) can contribute to the discussion.
The first prerequisite – choosing astronauts who are psychologically stable and compatible – is better illustrated by the harmonious crews of 2001 and The Martian, since the astronauts in 400 Days all come equipped with built-in problems. Captain Theo Cooper (Brandon Routh) and Dr. Emily McTier (Caity Lotz) were planning to get married, but the executive in charge of the project, Walter Anderson (Grant Bowler), inexplicably instructs Emily to end the relationship, sending Theo on a “four-day bender” right before the flight that lands him in jail and seemingly proves that he is not astronaut material, and leaving Emily to constantly brood over her insincere rejection. Needless to say, they have several tense moments during the simulation. Meanwhile, Cole Dvorak (Dane Cook) remains bitter about his distant parents and lonely upbringing, while Bug Kieslowski (Ben Feldman) is tormented by his extended absence from his young son. Still, if you’re writing a film that foregrounds four characters in confined quarters, there has to be something about them to generate occasional conflicts, and for the most part, Osterman’s astronauts do not allow their personal issues to interfere with their responsibilities.
Second, it seems important to provide the astronauts with a lot of room. The spaceship of The Martian is positively palatial in its dimensions, a mansion in space that will probably be forever beyond the budget of any spacefaring nation, and 2001’s Discovery is rather spacious as well. The simulated spaceship of 400 Days is not nearly as big, but there are still a large kitchen and private rooms for each astronaut. Third, it is important to keep everyone busy with regular tasks. The job of cooking rotates among the four crewmates; Theo has the burden of leadership, since he must decide what to do during any crisis; Cole has been asked to prepare a weekly video report on crew activities; Bug is in charge of the scientific experiments; and addressing another requirement of any successful mission – keeping a close eye on the crew – Emily is assigned to regularly interview and test her crewmates to evaluate their mental status and presumably intervene to avoid major problems (another one of HAL 9000’s jobs in 2001). The astronauts are also given personal journals and playing cards, recalling Frank Poole’s game of chess with HAL, and exercise machines are available in both The Martian and 400 Days (though Poole had to jog around Discovery’s circular chamber).
It is finally deemed necessary to keep isolated astronauts in regular touch with their family members and friends, as evidenced by messages in 2001 and The Martian, and that was planned in 400 Days, since Walter promised to contact them every day and crewmates were supposed to have access to the internet. However, on Day 26 of their mission, the astronauts hear mysterious explosions and thereafter find themselves entirely cut off from the outside world – which they assume is one of Walter’s simulated problems, designed to test their performance during adverse conditions. And in fact, the astronauts do adjust to the absence of communication, and they do suggest that such lengthy space missions would be feasible: the astronauts have some arguments, one fistfight, occasional hallucinations, and moments of disquieting behavior, but they manage to remain sane and functional throughout their simulated flight. In this way, the film affirms the traditionally optimistic message that has long resonated through sagas of space travel: outer space may be a dauntingly challenging environment, but resolute, well-trained humans will be able to prevail and lead their species onward to gradually conquer the cosmos.
However, the real reason behind the astronauts’ loss of communication stunningly contradicts that optimistic message – and while I have so far strived to remain vague about later events, it will now become necessary to state exactly what happens in the final half of the film. So, if you haven’t seen the film and wished to be surprised, read no further.
(As it happens, though, I actually think the film is more enjoyable if you already understand what is going on, as was the case when I watched it a second time, since on first viewing the developments only seem bizarre and irksomely incomprehensible.)
Basically, we are increasingly asked to believe that, 26 days after the simulated mission began, some enormous object struck the Moon and sent a massive storm of debris hurtling towards Earth. This polluted the atmosphere so severely as to leave the planet in eternal darkness, bring an end to agriculture, and cause massive numbers of human and animal deaths. A small band of survivors, obviously unbalanced even if they have not entirely descended to the mindlessness of zombies, travels from city to city, staying alive by killing and eating any other survivors they encounter. After one of them briefly invades their enclosure, the astronauts emerge to investigate and are greeted with transparently insincere friendliness by people who are eying them as their next meal.
In responding to this threat, the astronauts are hindered by recurring suspicions that all of this is actually another one of Walter’s phony problems, a staged scenario designed to evaluate their reactions to a stressful situation; so they regularly pause to search for hidden cameras or microphones. This is just barely possible: after all, football players traditionally practice by jumping through automobile tires, even though they will find no tires on the field during their games, and some misguided administrator might have strangely resolved to test the astronauts by presenting them with a problem that they would never encounter on an actual mission, like a toned-down version of the Zombie Apocalypse. Yet the sheer size of the transformed environment, and the actual violence that starts to occur, force them to recognize the reality of their plight – even though the film’s conclusion is not entirely unambiguous.
The audiences of 400 Days, then, ultimately find themselves watching what they have seen many, many times before: the impending end of the world, brought about elsewhere by events ranging from climate change and asteroid impacts to lethal plagues and alien invasions. Humanity’s future will not involve gleaming-white spaceships taking astronauts to new frontiers, but a dark terrain of despair and depravity, brightened only by the possibility that a few capable heroes, like this film’s astronauts, might somehow manage to resolve the crisis and launch a revival of civilization – which is the way the typical Hollywood apocalypse concludes. But it is hard to regard a story about a future of struggling to restore a devastated Earth as fundamentally optimistic.
Still, even those who continue to believe in a hopeful future of space travel must acknowledge that this sort of disaster is hardly impossible, though the usual concern is an object striking Earth, not the Moon. (Personally, I suspect that since it is so far away, an impact on the Moon would have relatively little effect on Earth, but someone might be able to do the math and prove me wrong.) Yet science fiction stories about space travel often combine optimism and pessimism to argue that space travel might represent the best way to cope with such impending catastrophes: in the short run, well-equipped astronauts might be able to prevent an asteroid impact (like the heroes of Deep Impact  and Armageddon ), and in the long run, even if Earth is doomed, spaceships would allow people to establish colonies in space and on other worlds and thus keep the human species alive.
In contrast, this film never establishes any connection between dreams of space travel and Earth’s devastation. When the leader of the sinister survivors, Zel (Tom Cavanagh), complains that the authorities provided no warning of the impending impact, that might be interpreted as a criticism of Earth’s misguided priorities, as no one was vigilant enough to notice, and perhaps take action to avert, the crisis. But the film itself never makes that point. And to emphasize the potential value of space colonization, Osterman’s screenplay might have had the astronauts undergo their simulation within the actual spaceship they would someday be flying; and upon discovering the ruined landscape around them, they might have restocked their supplies, recruited a few other not-quite-insane survivors, and concluded the film by launching the spaceship to take the human race to a new home in space.
However, I very much doubt that such an idea ever crossed Osterman’s mind, because with a few exceptions – like Interstellar (2014; review here) – popular culture has largely abandoned the once-common notion that humanity’s future lies in the outer space. Instead, if one accepts the conclusions of most science fiction films, television programs, and video games, our descendants will long be obliged to continue living on Earth, coping with one devastating crisis after another – like evil robots, totalitarian societies, and homicidal aliens, all scenarios that I will be encountering in other films I’ll soon be reviewing. There are a few outbursts of optimism – the generally benign future of the Star Trek franchise, and occasional films like this one that dangle the possibility of a better future before our eyes before plunging us into disaster – but the relentless pessimism one usually encounters, despite massive amounts of evidence indicating that life on Earth has steadily been getting better and better during the last seventy years, is both incongruous and disheartening. However, this tendency has been debated and deplored on many previous occasions.
I am left to comment on several small details, jotted down as I watched the film, that reflect varying degrees of attentiveness in developing the screenplay. As a key plot point, the astronauts first recognize that something unusual has occurred when Bug’s analysis of the dust now covering the landscape includes armalcolite, a mineral we are told is found only on the Moon. In fact, while this was initially believed to be the case when the Apollo 11 astronauts discovered it, armalcolite was subsequently found in several places on Earth – as can be ascertained by less-than-painstaking research, namely, looking it up in Wikipedia. The private company in charge of the simulation is called Kepler Enterprises, possibly referencing the recently-launched space probe, but literary scholars know that Johannes Kepler also wrote a pioneering work of science fiction, Somnium (1634), in which a journey to the Moon is accomplished by means of witchcraft; perhaps there is something similarly suspect about the company’s plans for space travel. While exploring the surface, the astronauts discover a map showing the towns of Jedona, Eagle Pass, and Tranquility before making their way to Tranquility; it is impossible to associate this map with an actual location (I can find no towns named Jedona; the only Eagle Pass is in Texas; and the only Tranquility is in New Jersey), but the names “Eagle Pass” and “Tranquility,” and the American flag shown flying in the second town, must be ironic references to the Apollo 11 flight of the Eagle to Tranquility Base. Despite visible efforts to achieve diversity in casting, there remains a tendency to prefer Caucasian astronauts, as evidenced by this film, yet 400 Days also announces its own exclusion of minorities when Bug discovers a menu in Zel’s diner indicating that the original owners were an African-American couple named Terry and Judy Garrison – who presumably either died in the original disaster or were killed and eaten by Zel and his friends. And it seems the rule that every serious space film must refer in some way to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and this film’s moment occurs when, as they walk through the darkness, one crewman sings “Daisy Bell,” famously performed by the dying HAL 9000. Perhaps, as in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the song is intended to signal the conclusion of a mission in which everything went wrong.
400 Days is also a film in which everything goes wrong, and it’s a shame; at some point before filming, I wish someone had advised Osterman, “Hey, instead of bringing in the crazed cannibals, why don’t you just finish the story you started?” – namely, a study of how humans might react to the experience of a long space voyage. My own research has shown, repeatedly, that it is possible to produce an involving film about astronauts without introducing murderous monsters, and since the film’s publicity makes no mention of the astronauts’ ultimate fate, it will only attract viewers who are interested in the realities of space travel (since people who want to watch otherworldly mayhem will seek out other films and television programs). Such viewers, like me, will likely be displeased by a film that ultimately fails to entertain them, even as it lurches out of focus in an effort to provide more entertainment. But resorting to clichés only takes an instant, while crafting a persuasive film about realistic space travel may require much more than 400 days.