A Space Program isn’t quite a science fiction film. It’s also not quite a documentary film. It’s a film about a contemporary artist, Tom Sachs, and his small army of studio assistants, as they build, launch and successfully complete an Earthly approximation of a manned mission to Mars.
A Space Program is the stylish movie version of Sachs’ 2012 project Space Program: Mars, a four-week installation in the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall. During the course of the show, Sachs and his studio team conducted demonstrations of their entirely handmade space exploration complex for live audience, complete with sets for a mission control, a Mars lander, surface sampling equipment and a stress-relieving tea ceremony.
Using the concept of bricolage, every aspect of Sachs’ artistic output is a hobbled-together approximation of a real life thing. These objects -- a space suit cooling system that includes a five-gallon sports cooler, a landing system that many will recognize as the arcade game Lunar Lander -- are wonderfully playful. The mock-seriousness of the entire endeavor has a Life Aquatic-like quality of matching a merry band of misfits with charming lo-fi special effects, cartoonish drawings and stop-motion animation.
As for narrative, A Space Program is light on that front. The movie starts off with a lot of stagecraft, introducing the Sachs studio members and their various material specialties: steel, plywood, Tyvek, epoxy and literature, to name a few. There’s plenty of dramatic lighting, official-looking ID badges and a stern-voiced narrator who fills us in on anything we might not know about plywood, Tyvek, epoxy and other Sachs studio methodologies.
The stated mission of A Space Program is to land the first women on the surface of Mars, find life on the planet and recoup investment. The astronauts, Lieutenant Samantha Ratanarat and Commander Mary Eannarino (who wear an 54 extra pounds of gear for the duration of the demonstrations documented in the movie), are the real focus of A Space Program, enacting a stilted drama about the stress of the mission and heightened interpersonal conflict inside the close quarters of the Mars lander.
Sachs, the ringmaster, is shown in quick cuts back to the control room, usually sipping whiskey on the rocks out of a glass with “NASA” etched on its side. Except for a brief introduction to Captain Oksana Todorova -- who’s in charge of document forgery and currency counterfeiting -- the rest of the studio is made up of men.
In their classic Apollo missions-era attire of white button-down shirts, khakis, slim ties and pockets full of pens, it’s hard to miss the moment when men back in mission control refer to astronauts Ratanarat and Eannarino as “girls.” That’s because it happens immediately after Eannarino takes her first step on Mars (the Park Avenue Armory’s hardwood floor) and says, “A woman did this.”
This, the astronauts’ sexy mesh bodysuits, and a few other cringeworthy moments of men explaining things to the women put a permanent sneer on my face right around A Space Program’s halfway mark.
With the decommission of NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis and the rise of pricey privatized space travel, Sachs’ artistic solution to our collective dreams of exploring the stars are welcome and visually inventive solutions. After all the helpful instruction included in A Space Program, we the viewers might just have the tools to craft our own missions, with our own set of rules.
A Space Program opens April 15 at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco.