There are lots of ways to pitch If You Were the Last. How about “Michel Gondry remakes When Harry Met Sally — in space!” Who wouldn’t want to see that? But for all the ingenious hot takes one can dream up for Kristian Mercado’s ambitious feature-length debut, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s less than the sum of its parts. To be brutal, although it does, for an hour at least, cast a spell, raise interesting metaphysical questions, and center on an odd couple who, for once, actually don’t seem like they’ll get together and then totally convince us when they do — it doesn’t really pass muster as a movie at all.
Which is surprising, because character-based, low-budget sci-fi indies set in the howling existential wilderness of deep space do have a history of working against the odds, like John Carpenter’s blackly comic Dark Star and Douglas Trumbull’s still slightly bonkers eco-themed Silent Running, which, here, is the more representative of the two. But the curious thing is that Mercado’s film seems to pass quicker when it’s languishing in the doldrums of the cosmos than it does when it arrives in the real world: why such a simple story takes so long to get to just 92 minutes is one of the many mysteries of the universe.
However, it’s easy to see why there was so much faith in the project, starting with the casting of Anthony Mackie as Adam and Zoë Chao as Jane. The chemistry is fantastic and immediate, but the character names are distracting, a weird but not-quite-there Biblical reference that reflects the unpredictable way in which things do and don’t make sense in the movie’s world. For example, in a break from traditional space-realism, the folksy interiors of their NASA craft looks more like a cosy, kitsch ’50s American show-home than Skylab, a visual clue (perhaps) that being cast adrift between Jupiter and Saturn for three years now, with no communication back home, has driven them more than a little stir crazy.
That the film begins with a conversation about The Martian is a nice touch, weighing up the political optics of whether they might be saved against the exorbitant cost of whether they should be saved. Jane is a realist, preferring to accept her fate and let the government use the money to save lives back home, while Adam thinks it will be a morale boost for America. Space is so boring, however, that such existential discussions have no real weight; next they’ll argue over which film to watch (Casablanca or Sense & Sensibility?) and squabble over music (Sinatra or Bieber?), which leads to graphic scenes of line dancing.
To pass the time, they give each other tattoos, and chattily confide in the skeleton of crew member Benson, whose fate is a far less subtle hint of cabin fever. But the film’s most revealing moment of the pair’s mental state comes when Jane’s music device packs in after its software corrupts. Chao plays this scene beautifully: she wants to hear Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” and now there’s a very real chance that she will never ever hear it again. Adam talks her down from the ledge, but this is what the film really needs much more of: the fear of the grounding that you really lose when you’re cut off from people, culture and life in general.
Having a man and woman in a confined area, however, inevitably leads to sex and talk of a physical relationship. “In case you hadn’t noticed,” says Adam, “we’re doomed to spend the rest of our miserable lives on this ship. It’d be crazy not to bang!” But if they do, what will happen next? Both are married, and, unsurprisingly, NASA hadn’t foreseen the need for condoms. Perhaps channeling Elton John, Jane has more thoughts about the matter: is this the kind of place to raise your kids?
There have been sparer stories about sex as an intellectual concept — a good one being Lynn Shelton’s sublime Humpday, which sustained the will-they-won’t-they tension right to the end. But If You Were the Last caves in pretty quickly, and when that bridge is crossed, what we’re left with is effectively a holiday romance movie, which has consequences when the pair finally return to Earth and life with their partners. (This may seem like a spoiler, but there’s still more than a third to go.)
As the credits roll, what had started so promisingly just seems to give up and wind down, becoming ever less interesting, which could be the point: where do you go after ad astra per aspera? That’s being very, very generous, though, and the film’s frustrating vagueness in pulling together all its many intriguing thoughts and ideas sadly undermines everything that works in its favor.
Title: If You Were the Last
Festival: SXSW, Narrative Spotlight
Directors: Kristian Mercado
Screenwriter: Angela Bourassa
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Zoë Chao, Natalie Morales
Running time: 1 hr 32 min
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.