While Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian imagined to great detail what humanity does once we’re jettisoned into space, the indie science fiction thriller 400 Days makes a keen point: Before we look at getting off our planet, shouldn’t we ensure that our astronauts can handle the psychological toll?
Turning our focus very much inward, writer-director Matt Osterman claustrophobically seals us in an underground bunker with four aspiring astronauts: captain Theo (Brandon Routh), hothead Dvorak (Dane Cook), weird genius Bug (Ben Feldman), and scientist/doctor/therapist Emily (Caity Lotz). If this foursome can handle a year-plus simulation of being in space, they’ll “get their tickets punched” for the real thing in the near future.
It sounds outlandish, but this idea is actually less farfetched than other astronaut dramas. The HI-SEAS project from NASA’s Human Research Program is currently on its fourth go-round of simulating Mars missions by having astronauts camp out on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano for four to twelve months. Such missions raise important questions about if we’re willing to invest as much in our space travelers’ emotional wellbeing as we do in the hardware to get us into space in the first place.
The thing is, 400 Days comes to us through Syfy Films, the same banner that keeps churning out the immortal Sharknado franchise, and it never quite shakes off that reputation. Despite taking place in only two sets, it still has a cheesy TV-movie look to it. In fact, the two sets nicely parallel the film’s unfortunate identity crisis: Half of it feels like an Alien homage, while the other half brings to mind classic Twilight Zone episodes, but with less nuance.
Because right around Day 373, with less than a month to go until the end of their weird quasi-social experiment, the crew begins to notice some unsettling things related to their faux-mission. Of course, there have been cracks leading up to this realization: Some of the members seem to be communicating with the outside world, while others are cut off; Dvorak and Bug are both hallucinating small but disturbing things, while Theo and Emily haven’t let go of certain baggage that makes living in such close quarters almost unbearable. It’s interesting that the Kepler program at the center of this experiment decided to bring on such obvious head cases.
But really leaning into this idea—of recruiting not your best and brightest, but your most neurotic—could have made 400 Days a lot more incisive! And honestly, real life has provided plenty of gripping examples of astronauts’ quirks, good and bad: Astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote about going blind on a spacewalk, and recorded himself singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
A recent Glamour profile on female Mars hopefuls talked about what happens when a male astronaut sexually harassed a female crewmember in a simulation. Dvorak would have been a great conduit for both of these: We see him obsessively record every detail of their days, though it’s unclear if he’s keeping a video diary or trying to post fake-space Vines to Twitter. While his need to document the experience for others but especially himself is charming, he’s also quite the creep, hitting on the clearly uninterested Emily every chance he gets. But rather than delve into a commentary on self-chronicling and sexual harassment—among other interpersonal issues that come up among a group of strangers living together—we get almost-stock characters whose unraveling is expected and unsympathetic.
Where 400 Days is strongest is in the theme that characterizes almost every interaction the astronauts have in the bunker: the dilemma of whether or not to buy in. Is it “cooler” to be aloof when everyone is in on the secret that it’s not real, or do you earn more cred by playing along like a little kid performing make-believe? There’s an early moment during “liftoff” when Theo is just blankly refusing to engage, even when their “shuttle” can’t separate its “payload.” You can see the expression on his face of C’mon, we all know this is just a game. But if they want to be considered for the real mission, they have to take the fake one just as seriously.
That tension is played especially well when, around Day 373, they begin to hear someone—or something—outside of the bunker. At this point, they’ve almost forgotten about the outside world, but why is something trying to get in? Should they go outside to investigate, or is opening the hatch another test that will jeopardize their fates?
I can’t reveal much beyond this, because it’ll delve into spoilery territory. Suffice to say, this halfway point in the movie is where the Twilight Zone allusions come in. If you like postapocalyptic mindfucks full of familiar faces and reveals that could be in your head or very much outside of it, you might appreciate the route this film takes. Personally, I would have preferred to spend all of the 400 days, and 90 minutes, inside a fake spaceship with very real psychosis.
Syfy took a similar route with this kind of story with its short-lived miniseries Ascension, which saw the inhabitants of a fifty-year generation ship actually the unwitting members of a twisted and super-secret government experiment. With Ascension not getting picked up to a full series and 400 Days not quite sticking the landing, I’m holding out hope that Syfy will make a third crack at this kind of story. Because this kind of investigation into the mental states of those who will take more small steps for man and greater leaps for mankind is vital.