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by Jay Seaver

"A fine French-Canadian space program."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: The festival opened with a film ("400 Days") that covers a lot of the same territory - global cataclysm happens while astronauts are undergoing long-term isolation trials - and this one is easily much better, despite having a lot of the same flaws. It's not that a somewhat handmade French-Canadian film is inherently better or more sincere than something made targeting the VOD market with familiar genre faces; it's that the folks making this one seem a lot more interested in their details, even if they don't quite seem sure of what they want the sum of those details to be.

The long-term mission is taking place on a Québèc Space Agency station in preparation for a potential manned mission to Europa. It's commanded by Vincent Kohler (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), the second man on Mars and a national hero. He, flight specialist Justine Roberval (Nadia Essadiqi), mission specialist Jonathan Laforest (Julien Deschamps Jolin), and medic Andrea Sakedaris (Julie Perreault) are scheduled to be up there for a thousand days, but nerves are already rather frayed by the time things start going very wrong in the early 900s.

The pressure cooker is a tough thing for a film to pull off, and director Eric Piccoli seems to struggle with it; he and Mario J. Ramos (his co-writer/co-editor) establish a pattern of creating a little more friction between characters or developing a subplot, and then skipping ahead a few months to when it has dissipated. It's not quite frustrating, but it keeps the movie from picking up the sort of head of steam it's looking for, and even when there are fewer big jumps forward, they still seem anxious to get to the next thing, or a flashback, or something that's neat but a diversion. There are only a few moments when characters act less intelligent and professional than you'd expect of astronauts selected for this sort of mission, at least, and the film mostly works in the moment.

There's a lot of soap in the early going, but when it gets into more science-fictional territory later on, it firms up some. Piccoli and Ramos throw some cold-equations material at the cast, and they don't squander it, and they work the other end of the sci-fi spectrum well, tossing in a moment or two of genuine wonder. The set design and effects crew do some impressive work on a presumably tight budget; they can't do much zero-gravity work, but they do just about everything else well, creating an ambitious world without overreaching.

A pretty nice cast is also a plus. I don't know that any are particularly huge names in the Québèçois film industry, but they're a strong group who work off each other very well - Jean-Nicolas Verreault does seem to project Vincent's larger reputation, Nadia Essadiqi and Julie Perreault both display sharpness with different personalities, and Julien Deschamps Jolin makes Jonathan a somewhat coarser working stiff without seeming out of place. The Earthside flashbacks and archive footage aren't quite as strong, but they kind of make up for it by the way they establish a future where Québèc is not only an independent nation, but apparently a very amiable superpower.

Piccoli never really does decide whether "Projet-M" is going to be more of a psychological or problem-solving thriller, and being scattered like that means the film can't make the jump from decent to buried gem. It's still a neat movie, though, doing enough things just a bit better than expected to be worth a science-fiction fan's notice.

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originally posted: 04/26/16 12:37:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2016 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

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