“Constellation” is a TV show with a movie premise: After a disaster at the International Space Station that a lone astronaut just barely escapes, she starts to have reality-bending experiences in her life back on Earth. (In fact, this was a movie, albeit a less fantastical version, called “Lucy in the Sky” — the first feature film from revered TV creator Noah Hawley.) What’s most interesting about this Apple TV+ show, at least at first, is that rather than simply stretching out what seems like a two-hour idea, it uses the structure of television to unmoor its audience, just as Jo (Noomi Rapace) finds herself adrift and confused in a life she’s supposed to recognize.
There’s a bit of clever, subtle bait-and-switch in the first few episodes of “Constellation,” which may be why the first three are premiering together. It seems like the first episode will take us through the mysterious collision that sends the ISS into disrepair, creating strong odds against Jo’s survival, which she will then beat, setting the stage for on-planet psychological distress in the aftermath. But the space sequences extend well into the second episode, and the bleeding between Jo’s life before, during and after her mission continues as the series goes on. The show keeps returning to a sequence of Jo and her 10-year-old daughter Alice (Rosie and Davina Coleman) making their way across a snowy landscape, with mom and child each seeing the other perform trippy disappearing acts. In the first few episodes, it’s purposefully unclear when exactly this is happening, nevermind why; the show’s path through space and time is not as clear-cut as it initially appears.
We gradually learn a bit more about Jo and her husband Magnus (James D’Arcy), as well as former astronaut and current NASA scientist Henry (Jonathan Banks), who is most interested in the project data and equipment that Jo has rescued from the ISS – and a few hours after its promising start, the show does indeed start to sag, though not with extra bloat. That intimacy is both a novelty and an eventual hindrance. “Constellation” hews so closely to a few points of view, and provides so few fleshed-out characters outside of Jo’s family and Henry, that its reality-bending starts to feel like a tedious loop: Jo has weird experiences, ranging from minor (misremembering the color of her family’s car) to major (becoming convinced Alice isn’t her “real” daughter); others look at her askance and wonder what’s wrong; Jo tries to shake it off and push through; then repeat, occasionally intercut with the same type of disorientation happening to Henry.
That so much of Jo’s strife involves her young daughter also means the show treats its audience to the repeated variations on scenes of separation, alienation and traumatization that often feels harrowing without much actual insight into parent-child relationships – a big ask, in other words, for anyone bothered by seeing children upset more or less nonstop. The show does turn the common practice of casting twins in a single role into a smartly unnerving touch; whether or not folks behind the scenes actually designated certain scenes for one twin or the other, the mere suggestion of it fits the show’s uncanny vibes. Still, that’s more gimmick than performance.
Noomi Rapace is a wonderful actress, but we get so much of her here — specifically, so much of her bugging out her eyes looking stricken, terrified or confused — that she winds up appearing paradoxically, unfairly limited.
“Constellation” raises plenty of intriguing sci-fi questions: Is Jo dealing with branched timelines, some kind of memory alteration, or a post-space madness that may have afflicted astronauts throughout the ages? (The narrative indulges in some neat fake history as it imagines executed, albeit troubled, versions of IRL-scrapped NASA missions like Apollo 18.) The show doesn’t quite descend into guessing-game withholding, and the sharp, chilly tone of its imagery evokes the wintry desolation of space even when Jo isn’t actually at the ISS or traipsing through the snow — tricky mirror shots abound. But the show keeps circling itself, the kind of looping that’s easier to sustain in — sorry — a feature film.
It’s ultimately hard not to wonder whether the structural advantages of a miniseries are really worth the quadrupled running time.
“Constellation” premieres Wednesday, Feb. 21, on Apple TV+.
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