By BRUCE DENNILL
Approaching The Unknown / Directed by Mark Elijah Rosenberg / PG
Hidden Figures / Directed by Theodore Melfi / PG
Movies about space. Littered with scenes in which tough men walk in slow motion towards the camera, improbable special effects and often entertaining but unlikely scenarios in which heroes conquer far-off worlds.
Or, as in The Martian and other more thoughtful enterprises, movies about space – this time looking at the myriad challenges presented, in the past and in the future, by extending mankind’s reach ever further beyond Earth’s atmosphere, and doing so in way that’s serious and sensitive enough to honour the enormity of the task.
Approaching The Unknown looks ahead – not very far, anymore – to when an astronaut is sent on a mission to lay the groundwork for the colonisation of Mars. That endeavour is the next great step forward in space travel, so the specifics of what could be involved are relatively well-known. In the film, the responsibility of carrying out all of those duties falls to Captain William Stanforth (Mark Strong), a committed, conservative sort with the training, the scientific knowledge and the experience to, if not guarantee success, then at give the mission the best possible chance of succeeding. This is not an all-action epic. It is a slow, considered unpacking of both the challenges involved in such a journey and the psychological strain on someone willing to give it a try. Luke Wilson pops up as Stanforth’s Earth-bound handler and Sanaa Lathan plays another astronaut on an aligned mission, but this is more or less wholly Strong’s film. The English actor fills all the gaps, uncompromisingly convincing as capable technician, creative scientist, responsible employee and groundbreaking pioneer. His claustrophobic situation is superbly communicated to the audience, who have no distractions or subplots to befuddle their focus on Stanforth’s goal. As a result, the film achieves what is ostensibly its goal, telling a severe but substantial story in a satisfying way.
Hidden Figures has the added advantage of telling a true story of a series of events and a group of people who provably had a major effect on the space race. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) had the brilliance of their minds and the value of their contributions underestimated or ignored on the basis of being both women and black. The film makes that prejudice and the obstacles it creates a central tenet of the film alongside the industry-changing quality of the work they did. Either thread is compelling enough to make for an outstanding film, but combined, the story they tell is remarkable. Kevin Costner as Al Mitchell, the man in charge of ensuring that the calculations required to get an astronaut into space and back onto the ground safely were correct, gives the sort of assured performance that made him an A-lister in the first place, with Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst also strong in supporting roles. Henson (in particular), Spencer and Monae give their characters the strength to blow through every layer of difficulty that comes their way, paying appropriate tribute to the women they’re depicting, whose achievements were ultimately recognised, even if there was – and is – a huge amount of room still available for improvement in the respect given to anyone that isn’t a white male.