Before Hilary Swank’s elite astronaut takes off on a high-risk three-year trip to Mars in Netflix’s new drama Away, she finds time to watch her daughter play football. It’s fair to say the portents are not good. The girl freezes in front of goal, her team lose, and before she knows it she’s enduring a tough-love lecture from mum about the importance of taking your chances in life.
Compared with some of the other issues that await Swank over the following 10 hours, this one is fairly low key – but it plants the show within the niche tradition of sci-fi stories with a very specific idea at their heart: the utter thanklessness of being a mum.
Seasoned space-movie obsessives will need no telling that motherhood is an unremittingly traumatic business: the message has come in many forms over the years, some more subliminal than others. The greatest of all deep-space maternal nightmares barely made reference to its key theme at all. Alien did all its heavy lifting through suggestive imagery: fields of eerily pulsating eggs, mazes of damp caverns and tunnels, infant extraterrestrials bursting out of human torsos. And a bloodthirsty monster with an engorged, protruding head.
At other times, the message has been far less cryptic – and not limited to any one genre. The Space Between Us is a shmaltzy teen romance that begins with an astronaut dying in childbirth. The Last Starfighter is a bombastic fantasy that starts with a woman’s son being abducted by aliens and replaced with an android doppelganger. High Life is a slow-burn arthouse picture that features Juliet Binoche as a deranged scientist trying to inseminate galactic prisoners against their will. Different movies, same subtext; the spurting syringe wielded by Binoche and the throbbing appendages of the Alien films all feature on the same family tree.
Friendlier cousins of those outright ordeals include Gravity and Arrival, whose heroines’ convoluted space odysseys turn out to be a lot more straightforward than they seem. Both those films’ protagonists are mothers who have lost daughters and, by the end of their respective missions, have each landed safely at some sort of inner peace. (No such luck for Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s scientist in The Cloverfield Paradox. In her attempts to reconnect with her dead children she succeeds in sending herself through an intergalactic time warp … only to be eaten alive at the last moment by a giant sea creature. So it goes.)
In Away, Swank’s problem isn’t grief: she just misses her family. It’s an issue that puts her in tune with the classic American space-dude. Last year, it was Brad Pitt’s tormented hero in Ad Astra who journeyed solo into the abyss just to see his old dad. The year before, in the biopic First Man, Neil Armstrong was reinvented as a man forever searching for his lost daughter. And before that, we had Matthew McConaughey’s good ol’ boy in Interstellar, whose cosmically tedious voyage through the space-time continuum was eventually rewarded, for him at least, by a deathbed reunion with his estranged daughter.
Those films were a reminder of how deep space has traditionally been presented on screen: as a sprawling plain where brooding antiheroes battle with exotic unknowns and return home as conquerers (the wild west link was even explicit in the title of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier). And Away does feature many of the time-honoured space-cowboy hallmarks: families being tearily waved off, daredevil landing manoeuvres watched with bated breath in Houston, celestial soil sifted in wonder through gloved fingers. It inverts a few of the old tropes, too: this time, it’s the husband stuck glumly at home, and the usual flag-planting spirit of US imperialism is replaced by a cheery internationalist vibe. But for Swank, the near future brings the same old story of maternal misery.
It’s something the actor was given a primer in with last year’s postapocalyptic mindbender I Am Mother, which pitted her against a humanoid robot in a battle to win the affections of a prodigal teenager. That task will be familiar to Sarah Connor of the Terminator franchise, who, when not rescuing humanity from nuclear Armageddon spent her time trying to veto the warm bond her son was striking up with a murderous android. (Steven Spielberg’s AI rejigged the familial love triangle to have the son driving a wedge between his mum and her adopted robo-child. But the outcome was largely the same: much angst.)
If there’s something a bit iffy about the determination of such a traditionally male-oriented genre to put women through the wringer – and there almost certainly is – then there’s comfort to be had in the capacity of sci-fi to break new ground, too, to produce characters who boldly go where no woman has gone before. Sigourney Weaver, for instance, was wielding a flame-thrower before Arnie had even arrived in Hollywood, blazing a trail since followed by Carrie-Anne Moss in the Matrix films and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars. Star Trek made Nichelle Nichols one of the first female African-American icons of the small screen. And while the idea of a female Bond is still laughed off as a non-starter, the Doctor has been saving the world in cropped trousers for a while now.
Swank’s teary-eyed pioneer is proof that, for mums, outer space tends to mean inner misery. From the comfort of our sofas, though, their labours have, by and large, been worth the effort.