Film Review: ‘A Space Program’

An alternately entrancing and amusing documentary-fiction hybrid that marries existential questions with absurdist humor.

Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Artist Tom Sachs has for years created elaborate installations rooted in “bricolage,” in which old items are used, manipulated and combined to form something new. That process, along with his fondness for space exploration, resulted in “Space Program” and its follow-up, “Space Program 2.0: MARS” — elaborate exhibits that employed hand-made interstellar crafts, tools, devices, gear, video feeds, animation and other elements to recount the fictional story of two female astronauts’ search for life on the Red Planet. The latter “2.0” show, put on at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2012, proves the basis for “A Space Program,” an alternately entrancing and amusing documentary-fiction hybrid that marries existential questions with absurdist humor. A subversive and silly whats-it that should find an audience with adventurous cinephiles, it serves as a cleverly constructed introduction to Sachs’ DIY work. 

Sachs’ career has often focused on appropriating, and mutating, pop-culture iconography (including corporate brands like Tiffany’s, Hermes, and McDonald’s), and in “A Space Program — made in collaboration with director Van Neistat — the artist employs ’60s and ’70s-era NASA technology for his tale of two women on a journey to Mars. That undertaking, however, is only the pretext for an extravagant game of make-believe in which Sachs mans an enormous bank of mission-control video monitors, where he can then track his two space travelers’ quest inside and outside their landing module — action that takes place on other spots along the exhibit’s vast warehouse floor.

More than just a document of a Sachs’ performance (which is presented in front of a live audience), “A Space Program also features complementary filmed sequences that establish and augment his show’s conceit. Those include opening scenes that announce not only many of the exploratory program’s participants, but also detail the various materials used to construct the trip’s vehicle, garments and tools — highlighted by the narrator, Pat Manocchia, referring to plywood as “a delicious wood sandwich.”

Such randomly self-conscious humor routinely powers Sachs’ endeavor, be it the use of an Atari 2600 for a flight simulator system (replete with archaic graphics and a “Congratulations — 100 points!” message upon successful completion), or a polygraph machine employed to monitor whether the astronauts’ rapport is veering too closely to “Bitch” territory. In the latter case, “A Space Program flirts with addressing the topic of conflict analysis and management. It’s a notion that soon comes to underscore the entirety of this project — in which a monumental out-of-this-world task is confronted through clever kitchen-sink ingenuity — though the film moves with a fleetness, and jocularity, that prevents it from digging too deeply into any such psychoanalytical concerns.

More important to Sachs is simply the art of imaginative construction, as well as the particularly rough-around-the-edges aesthetics of a boombox reconfigured into a fit-for-Mars sound system, a giant thermos functioning as part of a space suit’s complex water-cooling system, or steel that’s been shorn and then polished smoothly enough to be fit for “the mouth of a beautiful woman.” For the artist and director Van Neistat, these familiar substances and handmade contraptions have their own crude, makeshift beauty, and their primary role in “A Space Program — and its jaunt through the cosmos in a ship assembled by power drills and chainsaws, lit by candles and scored to the tunes of James Brown — allows the film to be a testament to the joy of resourcefully fashioning the exceptional from the ordinary.

With models and toys used to feign rocket launches and landings, and animation utilized for diagrammatic explanations of equipment procedures, Sachs and Neistat’s collaboration is both a record, and an example, of aesthetic collage, with goofy video-game visuals married to fuzzy in-craft cinematography and, later, an opium tea ceremony staged with Japanese formality. It’s a singularly off-kilter vision of repurposed invention, though even at 72 minutes, the film struggles to keep itself afloat, its central conceit too slender to maintain its sense of mirth or wonder. As far as wink-wink conceptual enterprises go, it’s a voyage through space and time of engaging, if ultimately also enervating, mock-authenticity.

Film Review: ‘A Space Program’

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., March 16, 2016. Running time: <b>72 MIN.</b>

  • Production: A Zeitgeist Films release. Produced by Erum Shah, Hailey Benton Gates.
  • Crew: Directed by Van Neistat. Screenplay, Tom Sachs, Neistat. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Neistat; editors, Neistat, Ian Holden; music, Eternal Lips aka Grey Gersten; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Dylan Marcus; re-recording mixers, Gene Park; animation and puppetry assistants, Andrew Jilka, Sam Ratanarat; special effects, Chris Beeston, Van Neistat, Pat McCarthy, Nick Doyle, Ben Gullard; line producer, Erum Shah; associate producer, Hailey Benton Gates.
  • With: Mary Eannarino, Sam Ratanarat, Hailey Gates, Tom Sachs, Evan Murphy, Chris Beeston, Pat McCarthy, Jeff Lurie, Gordon Milsaps.