Review by C.J. Bunce
The right mix of writing, acting, art direction, and music come together in Orbiter 9, a direct-to-Netflix Spanish film that really has it all. Like the critically-acclaimed Midnight Special, saying too much about the plot will give away too much of what is compelling about this film. But you can be sure to find a tense piece of science fiction derived from those classic tales of great writers of the past like Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick. It’s a tale of future Earth where Earthlings have ravaged the planet, so, like recent sci-fi entries Passengers and the Lost in Space reboot, the only chance for humans is to embark on long voyages to distant worlds.
Clara Lago (The Commuter, The Librarians, LEX) masterfully plays Helena, a young woman left on board a spaceship heading from Earth to a distant colony who encounters an engineer named Álex, coming to repair the ship’s oxygen system, played by actor Álex González (X-Men: First Class). We learn from a video image Helena is re-watching that her parents left her alone three years ago when the oxygen system broke down–their math showed that with Helena flying alone the oxygen could still get her to Celeste safely. Raised on the ship since birth, she has never met another human. She is diligent in her daily rituals, including exercise, with a determination to complete her mission prompted by her parents’ sacrifice. But after Álex’s arrival, everything changes.
More believable than prior visions of the future in this sub-genre (Passengers, Moon, the Cloverfield series), Orbiter 9 may pull its tale in part from classic Greek sacrifice mythology or closed-room mysteries like Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, and wrestles with the limits of sacrifice, for family or others–again, a concept addressed in many past sci-fi stories, Star Trek in particular (think Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “Suddenly Human” in Star Trek: The Next Generation and “Child’s Play” from Star Trek Voyager). Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one? Orbiter 9 attacks this question in many surprising ways. And unlike many a recent sci-fi film, it’s story belongs in a full feature format like this–it’s not just another short story dragged out to fit a movie-length format.
Orbiter 9 provides a unique dramatic romance. Álex is the first man Helena has ever met, and once he finishes his ship repairs he will be the last. Clara Lago balances the stoic grace of an Olympic gymnast with someone holding back a meltdown. Helena lives in solitude, watching movies from an Earth she has never experienced, her only companion the voice of the ship’s fully-integrated computer, which helps to keep her alive. Is living on a ship in solitude for half her life worth her sacrifice? Why can’t she leave with him?
Even one of the film’s tangents is strange yet something entirely new–psychiatrists in the future view their patients via wolf-like avatars so the patients do not see their doctors. It’s something that must be seen to grasp, but it’s related to the privacy and open dialogue of church confessionals. While it’s not key to the plot, it adds to the worldbuilding of this future Earth.
Director Hatem Khraiche, in his directorial debut, turns in an exquisite, audacious, gripping film complete with intriguing plot twists, social dialogue, and a satisfying finish. Filmed in Spain and Colombia by cinematographer Pau Esteve Birba, Orbiter 9 pulls off the look and feel of a big-budget production. It’s future Earth is every bit as elegant and interesting as the future cities of Blade Runner. The art direction by María Fernanda Muñoz (American Made) and production design by Iñigo Navarro (Kingdom of Heaven) create a world as believable as any in sci-fi, with uniquely stylish and futuristic spacewear by costume designer Saioa Lara. Backing all this is a fantastic musical score by Federico Jusid (Fermat’s Room) that is as compelling and fresh as any recent sci-fi film soundtrack.
Can humans hope to survive on a truly long-distance journey, beyond the year experienced by current astronauts on the International Space Station? When year becomes years, it’s easy to see why such a journey would be excruciating for the mind, if not entirely unbearable.
Now streaming on Netflix worldwide, in Spanish with subtitles and some English dialogue, Orbiter 9 should be your next Netflix pick. The soundtrack is also available here at Amazon.