Streaming: Proxima and the rise of female astronaut movies

<span>Photograph: Picturehouse/PA</span>
Photograph: Picturehouse/PA

For too long in the movies – as in life – space exploration was presented as a boy’s realm: brave, lantern-jawed men soaring off to the final frontier while their wives waited and fretted on terra firma. A recent spate of films and TV series have redressed the balance, putting women at the centre of their stargazing narratives – few more stirringly than Proxima (multiple platforms), a superb astronaut character study from the French director Alice Winocour that gives Eva Green the role of her career.

Proxima got a UK cinema release in July, but amid pandemic uncertainty never found the audience it deserved. Now, VOD should serve as a reintroduction to a film that combines compelling space-station activity with a frank, straightforward feminist message. Green plays Sarah, an ambitious astronaut and single mother surprised to receive a last-minute invitation to join a European Space Agency mission to Mars – the realisation of a lifelong dream, but one that necessitates a year spent apart from her eight-year-old daughter Stella (the delightful Zélie Boulant).

It’s a tough, heart-tearing conflict, played by Green with raw, vulnerable integrity as Sarah battles not just her daughter’s resentment but the cool condescension of the men on her mission. Winocour hasn’t written her as a colourless, real-life wonder woman. Mixing grounded anxieties with cosmic wanderlust, Proxima recognises that feminist heroes can make human mistakes and reveal weaknesses en route to greatness.

It’s a long way from the less evolved space-hopping of Roger Vadim’s riotous Barbarella from 1968 (free to stream on Amazon Prime), in which Jane Fonda was nothing if not a good sport as a sparkly swimsuit-clad United Earth government rep sent to save humanity. It took another decade for Sigourney Weaver to give women in space a somewhat steelier image, thanks to the enduring badassery of her redoubtable officer Ripley. Her ferocious exploits in Alien and Aliens are both on Google Play; how much further you want to delve into the diminishing franchise is your call.

In the 1990s, Jodie Foster’s stoically intelligent, wormhole-travelling Cape Canaveral scientist held her own in Robert Zemeckis’s smart, still underrated Contact (free on Prime). But it’s since 2013’s exhilarating, Oscar-laden Gravity (Prime again), in which Sandra Bullock had to single-handedly fight her way back to Earth from the great beyond, that women have really commandeered the genre. In the eerie, ingenious Arrival (on iTunes), from 2016, Amy Adams’s alien interpreter didn’t have to go into space to have an otherworldly experience. Likewise, the black female Nasa mathematicians of the same year’s vastly entertaining crowdpleaser Hidden Figures (Microsoft Store) didn’t have to leave Earth to blaze trails.

Last year saw Natalie Portman crash and burn as a PTSD-afflicted astronaut in the disappointing Lucy in the Sky (on Sky Go). Donning a spacesuit for the second time, after Jon Amiel’s 2003 cheesefest The Core, Hilary Swank has fared better in her slick, soapy Netflix series Away, which follows a similar arc to Proxima with rather more gloss.

It’s still European film-makers pushing women in space a little more daringly out there. From 2018, see the nameless Mimarobe – an AI facilitator granted shifting powers of deception on a doomed luxury spacecraft to Mars – in the fascinating Swedish eco-sci-fi parable Aniara (on the BFI Player), or Juliette Binoche’s deranged, sexually exploitative scientist in Claire Denis’s wild black-hole odyssey High Life (in the Mubi Library). Female astronauts don’t just have to be role models any more.

Also new on streaming and DVD

(Altitude, 15)
Briefly notable as the first major release to hit cinemas after the initial pandemic lockdown, this ripely ludicrous psycho-on-the-loose thriller is now available for home viewing, for anyone who fancies the romp without the risk. With Russell Crowe playing it to the hilt as a road rager gone rogue, it’s a shameless B-movie hoot.

How to Build a Girl
(Lionsgate, 15)
Originally released only on Amazon Prime, Coky Giedroyc’s peppy film of Caitlin Moran’s bestselling semi-memoir is now available on a wider array of platforms. It’s a cheery enough distraction, propped up by Beanie Feldstein’s game performance as the writer’s teenage alter ego, but its point of view on adolescent feminism and exploitation is a bit gauzy.

Dry Wind
(TLA, 18)
The title sounds unpromising, but Brazilian director Daniel Nolasco’s deliciously horny debut overcomes that. A dreamy, sun-scorched gay fantasia following a middle-aged factory worker’s erotic entanglements with a pair of co-workers, it’s a sort of romantic comedy as reconceived by Tom of Finland, full of wit and neon beauty in equal measure.

Top End Wedding
(Signature, 15)
Director Wayne Blair had a big Aussie hit a few years back with The Sapphires, and aims for a similarly breezy crowd-pleaser in this likable but ramshackle culture-clash romcom, in which an Indigenous Australian lawyer and her white British fiance must negotiate assorted family crises en route to their big day.

Frames of Representation festival
Booking is open for the online edition of the ICA’s annual experimental cinema showcase, which kicks off on Friday. Highlights include The Earth Is Blue As an Orange, a superb documentary in which a Ukrainian family uses film-making to survive the war in Donbass, and Endless Night, an inkily atmospheric reflection on Franco’s Spain.