Toronto 2022 Review: VIKING, Mars In Absurdia
If you follow the arc of Mars in the last hundred years of cinema, it’s representation evolves from a dreamscape utopian fantasy of early silent cinema, a place where anything was possible, to a swamp of horrors and creatures during the cold war space race, to merely another ‘problem’ of the 21st century, to be solved as granularly and as pragmatically as possible on screen by the likes of A-listers like Ridley Scott, Brian DePalma and Ron Howard.
Of course, the real NASA (and Elon Musk) is also doing this, in parallel, at the moment.
With all this in mind, it is an absolute delight to see the quest to tame the Red Planet veer off into the deadpan absurdity of “Hell is other people,” in Stéphane Lafleur’s dryly hilarious new film, Viking.
It opens in medias res in a kind of rapid-fire Voight-Kampff test crossed with Jeopardy! qualification, as hundreds of questions are being asked to match candidates to the five astronauts already on their way to Mars. Those who ‘exactly' match the personality types and communication styles of each of the scientists and engineers en route are put in their own shadow-Mars outpost in the American desert to role-play, and provide options, to any conflicts aboard the actual mission: Simulation. Comprehension. Solution.
None of the selected candidates have the backgrounds, either educational or cultural, of the actual astronauts. Most, if not all, of them are French Canadian (a Nation within a Nation), the budget of this NASA side-project is decidedly lacking, and (and perhaps this is enlightened at our current moment) their genders often do not match. Before you can say Stanford Prison Experiment, things are off the rails in delicious slow motion. By this, I mean that the bureaucrats running the ‘mirror-habitat’ have trouble finding the keys to the front door.
It is best not to spoil the many narrative surprises or the myriad interpersonal situations mined for comedy by Stéphane Lafleur, and his co-writer Eric K. Boulianne, but the question of professionalism and ethics seems to be the main challenge of the human species. In a psychological situation as ludicrous and confoundingly impossible as this one, the candidates (and the audience) begin to lose grip on what is actually going on.
The purpose, the egos involved, even reality itself, comes into question. The bureaucrats keep popping in unannounced like it is no big deal, and the ‘astronauts’ keep taking off their helmets. One orders in a pizza, while on break. There are no breaks on Mars, folks.
Through it all is Sara Mishara’s gorgeous 35mm cinematography, which cuts to the essence of cramped spaces, and basks in the wide open vistas of the Drumheller badlands. Having Alberta be a mirror for Arizona (or Nevada, or New Mexico, or wherever NASA does these sorts of things) in the same way that the replicate crew are a stand-in for the real astronauts is a nice slice of poetic wit that is not lost on the filmmakers. There are several surreal visual touches that elevate the experience beyond its comedic bona fides.
When Stanislaw Lem published Solaris, he wrote, “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors…” I am not sure Viking is exactly what the Polish science-fiction author had in mind, but I am glad we had this conversation.