Ernie Gilbert, “Nine Minutes” (2017)
What if you suddenly discovered that you only had nine minutes left to live? How would you spend that time? This dilemma is made very real for future astronaut Lillian (Constance Wu), on a mission for United Earth Space Agency exploring a newly discovered planet and collecting soil samples: while her craft attempts take-off back to the mothership, an engine misfires and the astronaut is forced to eject before the craft explodes in mid-air. With her AI guide (voiced by Reggie Watt) keeping her company and warning her that her spacesuit’s oxygen levels are low, Lillian recovers from her sudden ejection and manages to recover the samples and make sure their containers have not been broken. She locates her damaged craft but is unable to obtain more oxygen from the tanks. With her oxygen running low and even her AI guide having to shut down, Lillian reviews her life, how she has always invested her energies and passions into her work while neglecting her significant relationships, and tries to come to terms with the choices she has made so that her last few moments are not lived in vain.
The film has a clean, cool yet elegiac look and feel, and the desert setting and cinematography concentrate all the viewer’s attention on Lillian as she becomes increasingly disoriented from low levels of oxygen in her suit and her dialogue with her AI guide becomes distracted and fragmented. One senses that she may be regretting choices she has made in the past in her drive to become an astronaut. Who is she apologising to at the moment of her death? The tantalising climax leaves her speech unfinished and it is anyone’s guess who or what the object of her apology is.
The film gives no backstory to Lillian, how she might have fought her way up through the ranks of the UESA to become a leader of an expedition to the new planet, and so viewers may not feel much sympathy for her in her efforts to preserve the samples rather than try to save herself. What is the nature of her expedition and what are the samples being tested and used for? Is the UESA merely the workhorse agency for corporate mining clients or terraforming companies wishing to exploit the resources of the planet for profit? Is Lillian a fool for wanting to preserve the samples, giving up her life as a result? Is she even aware that she will soon become a corporate statistic?
Wu gives a good performance as the doomed astronaut trying to maintain her sanity and a clear head while her oxygen is giving out, her mind is becoming foggy and her speech degenerates into babble. The cinematography is good too in gradually zooming from a focus on scenery onto a focus on Wu’s face, circling around the woman as she sits in the desert looking ahead. There is not much one can say about Watt’s voice-over apart from that it is clear and does not reveal much emotion – which perhaps increases Lillian’s sense of isolation and thus her determination to make her last moments count for something.
It is often paradoxically when humans are stuck in situations where they appear to have no choice at all in determining their destiny that they may choose to rise above those situations and determine to live and die with meaning. The film becomes much more than a film about self-sacrifice for a cause that may not deserve such heroism.