Sleeper Celluloid: Real Reviews of Fake Movies

The Wrong Stuff: Antoine Wilson Reviews Guillame Abruzzo’s Cynical Space Nightmare Mine

Writer and Director: Guillame Abruzzo; Cast: Channing Tatum, Tabu, Rufus Sewell, and Max Perlich 

The first line of dialogue in Guillame Abruzzo’s ponderous but ultimately compelling science fiction film Mine is a single, mumbled, four-letter word for excrement. An unnamed astronaut (Max Perlich), attempting an arduous docking maneuver, has just botched the job, resulting in the implosion of the vehicle with which he’s trying to dock, and the deaths of the several astronauts we’ve just seen sitting inside.

That Abruzzo’s war-is-hell-in-space film opens with such a scene is not remarkable in and of itself. That it occurs eighteen minutes into Mine is astonishing. For a full eighteen minutes, without music or dialogue, we watch Perlich prepare for the docking. He checks his calculations, works on the computers, fidgets with a valve, all in silence. He’s got no HAL or GERTY to talk to. His capsule is a dump, papered over with drawings and notes, random detritus floating past while he works.

In lesser hands, this would be about as exciting as watching a computer programmer at work. But Abruzzo guides our vision toward the astronaut’s bloodshot eyes, his uneven stubble, the recurring itch in his left ear. We don’t see what he’s typing, but he hits the delete key more than seems normal. When the docking fails and the vehicle implodes, Abruzzo presents the abrupt shift from drudgery to tragedy as a fact of life, nothing else.

We see in Perlich’s world-weary (space-weary?) eyes such a loss of hope that we know what’s coming next before he does. Again, Abruzzo refuses to telegraph, sticking with a medium shot. The only thing in motion is the astronaut’s arm, first crossing himself, then reaching for a lever that sucks everything out of the cabin, including him, leaving us to look at the cored-out hull of a ship, now merely space junk. Reading this, one might be tempted to interpret this as an act of hari-kari, a self-sacrifice in the face of dishonor. But after waiting eighteen minutes for it, the meaning is unmistakable: Perlich’s astronaut can’t bear to be alone for another moment.

By this point, half of the audience has likely filed out of the theater. This is not the movie they’ve been sold in the trailers. That movie does show up, eventually, with music, and dialogue, and scenes set on an Earth much like ours. There are no funky costumes, no futuristic cars. No alien invasion. Only advanced space-travel technology.

mine_web

We are, as usual, at war with each other. The players are divided into three factions: a EuroAmerican Coalition, a PanAsian Group, and an Anonymous-like collective of privateers and hackers (called Kernel) operating out of a base near Birdling’s Flat in New Zealand.

Space archaeologists (who they are is never made clear) have discovered a highly protected and booby-trapped burial-chamber-cum-mine on the Martian surface. After an attempt at a joint mission, the botched docking incident has prompted the EuroAmericans and PanAsians to declare war on each other in pursuit of whatever lies beneath the Martian surface. The Kernel team function as a sort of terrorist third-party.

Abruzzo isn’t one for battlefields, or lasers shooting across the vastness of space. He prefers cameras mounted inside space helmets, fogging up with each breath. There are no buildings on Abruzzo’s Mars—meaning nobody takes their helmets off outside the spaceships. Everyone is isolated within their own spacesuit and bubble-mask. Why, one might ask, hire Channing Tatum as your leading man if he’s going to spend most of your movie behind a full-face version of mirrored sunglasses? (The answer probably lies in shooting schedules—Abruzzo is a notoriously slow director, and Tatum’s character is played by a body double for much of the film.)

Once on Mars, the factions recognize that they must rely on each other to survive. The petty differences that separated them on Earth are momentarily put aside as they face the fact that the ancient civilization has done everything in its power to protect the loot from outsiders. Abruzzo seems neglectfully disdainful of this part of the film. There’s speculation that the factions’ sudden spirit of cooperation stemmed from a studio note, and that Abruzzo’s killing off Tatum shockingly early was his response. In any case, Tatum’s death sets off a series of fatal skirmishes, including hand-to-hand combat, in space suits, on the Martian surface. For a spell, Abruzzo loses himself in a Spielbergian playground of references, dropping nods to everything from Three Kings to Charlton Heston’s little-known prospectors-and-propellers film Mother Lode.

In the end, two astronauts are left. The PanAsian Group’s Tabassum (played by the Indian Actress Tabu) and Kernel’s Haxxor (played by Rufus Sewell). Deep in the complex, at the final door blocking the way to the mine’s inner chamber, Haxxor sabotages Tabassum’s oxygen and she’s forced to return to her ship. Haxxor, welding tools in hand, manages to penetrate the final chamber, the heart of the mine. Suddenly, a crackling sound dominates the soundtrack—Haxxor’s Geiger counter—and he vomits inside his helmet, collapsing to the ground. The prize, it turns out, is an ancient nuclear waste storage container, the “booby traps” intended as a warning system, a benevolent KEEP OUT sign left behind by an ancient civilization.

Tabassum doesn’t make it to her ship. Abruzzo gives us a long shot of Tabassum’s suit, supine in the Martian dust, then cuts to a camera inside her helmet. Her eyes flutter. The final image is her view of the vastness of space; it flickers to black every time she blinks. This goes on for three and a half minutes. As the blinks grow longer, we notice—I’m not sure if some digital effects nudge us or if we naturally end up focussing on it—the tiny blue Earth among the stars and planets.

Mine is a narrative of pettiness, avarice, and bellicosity resulting in nothing. As such, it puts on grand display the worst of human nature. But within his plot, Abruzzo refuses to let go of the essential humanity of his characters; their nobler selves must contend with the roles they are fated to play. These forms have been around since the Ancient Greeks, but in Abruzzo’s vision, there’s a crucial difference: the Gods have absconded. Civilization tends toward self-destruction, Abruzzo seems to be saying, and while the individuals comprising that civilization have no chance of escape, they do have the right to their own little piece of subjectivity, if only for the time being.

Antoine Wilson wrote the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Best New American Voices, and The New York Times, among other places. He is a contributing editor of A Public Space. He lives and surfs in Los Angeles. You can find him at antoinewilson.com or on Twitter: @antoinewilson.