In Netflix’s current run of middling-to-terrible original sci-fi movies, Orbiter 9 at least gets the prize for taking some of the biggest swings. At the 20-minute mark, the entire premise is thrown out the window and turned on its head. 40 minutes later, the nature of the lead character’s existence is completely redefined, and the somber ending somehow plays it both sinister and hopeful. Add in some clever futurisms, admirable production values for the minimal budget they must have had, and a compelling lead actress and you get an entirely watchable Spanish-language sci-fi romance.
That is as long as you don’t get tripped up about the romance part because Orbiter 9 eventually moves dangerously close to Passengers territory. There’s no Chris Pratt counterpart damning a Jennifer Lawrence counterpart and lying to her about it just because he was lonely, but there is…well, let’s just say there’s definitely a relationship begun under false pretenses.
The plot starts out like a gender-swapped Moon: a young woman, Helena (Clara Lago), lives alone in a space capsule and occasionally interacts with the kindly computer AI running everything. It’s a sad, lonely existence, but she makes the best of it, working out, watching old black & white movies, seeing to her hydroponic plants. As we learn from an old video she watches, her parents were originally meant to accompany her every step of the way on this mission to a faraway planet, but a technical glitch caused a shortage in the oxygen supply. In order for Helena to survive the lengthy mission they had to leave, but that was 3 years ago. As a result, she’s never actually met another human being other than her parents before.
Which is why she’s so nervous, anxious, and excited about an upcoming maintenance visit from an engineer. For science jargony reasons, this will be the first and last time anyone will stop by to make sure everything is working properly. Wouldn’t you know it, Alex (Álex González), the guy who makes the trip, is an irresistible brooder, and Helena falls for him.
There’s a definite YA romance feel to all of this. It’s as if someone mixed together Everything, Everything (the one about the girl with a rare genetic disease preventing her from ever going outside) and The Space Between Us (the one about the boy in the space station trying to have a romance with a girl down on Earth).
Then the twist happens and…
I’m not going to spoil it, at least not here [look to the bottom of the review for that]. I’ll simply say that where Orbiter 9 takes things surprised me, which fueled my interest for a while until I realized I wished it had just remained a gender-swapped Moon. Plus, once it became clear the film wasn’t going to address the somewhat problematic gender politics inherent to its premise my enthusiasm dropped considerably. The story would have actually been better served if the guy had been acting purely out of regret and ethical concern and not love. A charitable reading would argue he actually does and only falls in love after that. Even so, he could have come clean to her sooner, and the script could have definitely allowed her a little more outrage.
However, the world-building is remarkably effective, and the script sprinkles in one fascinating sci-fi idea after another on the periphery. For example, I absolutely loved the concept and visuals of an anonymous psychiatrist appearing to her patients as a holographic wolf! It’s enough to make Orbiter 9 a film set in a compelling universe I wanted to know more about even though the overall storyline left me feeling cold.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Similar to Netflix’s The Titan, Orbiter 9 wants quite simply to tell a story about love at the end of the world, and it twists and turns enough to hold your attention. However, for a film that begins on a girl, it is actually the guy who will ultimately decide how you feel about Orbiter 9. In one reading, his actions are problematic; in another reading, they’re remarkably romantic. I clearly leaned more toward the former than the latter. What about you?
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Did anyone else see this:
And think of this?
2. SPOILER Passengers and Orbiter 9 are both essentially movies about women falling in love with their jailor. In both films, a man falls in love with a woman by watching her from afar – Pratt literally watching Lawrence sleep, Alex watching security cam footage of Helena for 5 years – has sex with her under false pretenses – Pratt letting Lawrence believe her sleeping pod malfunctioned even though he’s the one who sabotaged it, Alex letting Helena believe she really is on a space station and he’s the only man she’ll ever meet – and is eventually forgiven by her once the truth comes to light.
There are, of course, differences. Pratt isolates Lawrence on a space station with him and damns her to die either alone or with him whereas Alex frees Helena from her isolation and shows her the world, albeit while also hiding her from the authorities. Moreover, Passengers is told right away from Pratt’s point of view and is entirely built around his tortured decision to free Lawrence out of loneliness whereas Orbiter 9 begins on Helena and never really treats Alex’s actions as being entirely in the wrong:
His choice to join the Orbiter program despite its ethical problems is framed in relatable “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one” reasoning, and his self-sacrifice at the end to join Helena in the program since she’s carrying his child paints him in heroic terms. I just wish Helena had a little more say in the narrative and a better sense that just because this is the first guy she’s ever met doesn’t mean she’s in love with him forever despite all of his lies.
What about you? Were you bothered by the romance? Still don’t get why I think it’s problematic? Or do you just want to book a session with that wolf psychiatrist? Let me know in the comments.