Despite brilliant performances and an intriguingly cerebral attitude, Sean Penn's Hulu-set space race fails to reach for the stars, keeping its feet disappointingly on terra firma.
Let’s get this out of the way first: if you’re looking for The First to be a rollicking space adventure about Sean Penn navigating the unknown reaches of the cosmos, you’re in the wrong place.
A British-American co-production created by Beau WIllimon (House of Cards), The First is more The Right Stuff than The Martian or Apollo 13 – the focus is not on the mission itself, but on the days, weeks and even years leading up to the first manned flight to Mars, and the lives its crew would be leaving behind. The First keeps its feet firmly on terra firma, which is both the show’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
From the opening strains of Colin Stetson’s Hans Zimmer-tinged score, its main theme giving respectful nods to his scores for Interstellar and Man of Steel, The First digs its heels into the personal anguish of its characters. Mission commander Tom Hagerty (a grizzled, terrifyingly buff Penn) is a broken man – he’s kicked off the first attempt at a Mars mission, only to look on helplessly as their rocket explodes on takeoff, killing everyone on board. Brought back on for a second attempt by the calculating CEO of the private space company funding the mission (Laz Ingram, played by Natascha McElhone), Hagerty must wrestle with his own personal demons and secure the mission’s success just as his estranged daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) comes back into his life.
Hagerty’s not the only astronaut facing personal sacrifices and struggles on his quest to break orbit, either. LisaGay Hamilton’s Kayla wrestles with the discrimination that comes from being a black queer woman in a STEM field, while Hannah Ware’s Sadie Hewitt struggles with her strained marriage, and her ambivalence towards their attempts to get pregnant. Everyone involved in the project is punishing themselves or searching for something greater, using the endeavor as a means not only to further humanity’s understanding of the universe, but to heal something deep inside themselves.
To The First’s credit, these interpersonal stories are told with a tremendously enticing visual language. Cinematographer Adam Stone’s crisp, moody compositions capture the unbelievable pain of these characters, and the curious coldness of the near-future Earth in which this is set. The production design elegantly introduces small, intuitive advances in technology that make sense – sunglasses that also act as VR goggles, TVs and trucks that can be commanded by voice, and holographic counseling programs that reflect your own image back at you. It’s a lived-in world that organically introduces new technology into a world that otherwise looks just like ours, which is admirable.
Elliptical editing keeps the show feeling dreamlike, an intriguing mixture of Tree of Life and, yes, Interstellar again. The show’s fifth episode, “Two Portraits,” uses Denise’s love of drawing to suck the audience into a layered flashback structure detailing the breakdown of her family (including the suicide of her mother, played by Melissa George). These flashbacks play out against an inky backdrop not unlike the abysses of Under the Skin, fragments of memory popping up against the oblivion of time.
And yet, it can’t help but feel disappointing to realize that this isn’t really a show about space, or exploring Mars, trapping it in the same ponderous weaknesses that plague a lot of other prestige dramas. While individual scenes shine, there’s a sameyness to the presentation that makes it difficult to stretch your interest across eight entire episodes. All of the characters have a variation on the same set of problems, each of them conveyed in the same self-serious tone: pick a character, and you’ll find a dozen scenes where they talk endlessly about their own personal hangups to someone else in a sterile, dimly-lit room. Willimon’s show is admirably resolute in its focus – the sacrifices we must make to achieve great things – but it mires its characters in such navel-gazing melodrama that it’s hard to keep your attention. By the time the characters even get to space (which is far, far later than you’d expect or want), their success feels bittersweet. Instead of exploring the unknown, our characters feel like they’re running away.
Perhaps with a second season, The First can find ways to juggle the grandeur of space travel with the interpersonal travails of its characters. As it is, however, the show feels like a particularly ponderous miniseries pilot stretched over an entire season – a desire to probe the psychology of the ‘right stuff’ by throwing all manner of cheap soap-opera tragedies their way. While the cast is superlative (Penn, McElhone, Jacoby-Heron and Hamilton really elevate their respective material), these kinds of one-note dramatics can only take a show about the majesty of the universe and our insignificance within it so far. For a show about people looking up to the stars in wonder, its gaze is disappointingly earthbound.
The First blasts off onto Hulu Friday, September 14th.