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Disaster follows an astronaut back to Earth in the thriller 'Constellation'

Noomi Rapace plays an astronaut on the International Space Station in the Apple TV+ series <em>Constellation.</em>
Apple TV+
Noomi Rapace plays an astronaut on the International Space Station in the Apple TV+ series Constellation.

Constellation, the new drama series streaming on Apple TV+, starts in outer space, with an astronaut struggling to survive, and return safely to Earth, after things go horribly wrong.

This has long been familiar film territory, from the malfunction in Apollo 13 and the deadly stowaway in Alien, to the twisting perceptions of reality in Gravity. Constellation, created and written by former Doctor Who writer Peter Harness, borrows a bit from all of those. It's a very tricky story to follow – but in the end, and by the end, it's a very moving one.

In Constellation, the International Space Station, with a handful of astronauts aboard, is in orbit when it collides with an unidentified object, crippling most of the onboard systems. That's the Apollo 13 part. An emergency evacuation leaves a single astronaut waiting behind to repair and pilot the craft, while time, space and memory seem to shift – as does reality itself. That's whatSandra Bullock's astronaut went through in Gravity. And finally, there's something mysterious and otherworldly on board – something potentially lethal. So there's Alien, sort of.

But in Constellation, while the spacebound scenes are thrilling and creepy, there's less frantic action in this series overall, and more underlying tension. It's a slow build, and takes several episodes to establish what may or may not be really going on here. But the clues make more sense as you go along, and the more you watch this Constellation, the more profound and disturbing it becomes.

Noomi Rapace, from a previous outer-space thriller, Prometheus, stars here. She plays Jo Ericsson, an astronaut on the space station who, in an early scene, is communicating with her 10-year-old daughter, Alice, who's back on Earth. The daughter, Alice, is played by twin actresses, Rosie and Davina Coleman, who rotate in the role. That's somehow fitting, because, after a while, Jo begins to suspect that her daughter isn't the same little girl she left behind.

Jo isn't the only one with suspicions or identity issues. Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad co-stars as a former astronaut named Henry Caldera, who's now a scientist with a top-secret experiment aboard the endangered space station. At times, he acts like two different people, and there may be a reason. Psychologists in the space program believe that both Jo and Henry suffer from "high altitude psychosis," which explains – to them – the astronauts' post-mission bouts of confusion, memory loss and paranoia.

Complicated? Absolutely. Over the eight installments of Constellation, perspectives change. Stories change. Even people change. Scenes that look one way, and mean one thing, in episode one are turned inside out when they return in episode six or seven.

It's a story full of unreliable narrators, and a TV show where the images are more important and revealing than the dialogue. And because the visuals are crucial throughout, the directors of this series are crucial, too. Oliver Hirschbiegel and Joseph Cedar direct the later episodes, stunningly, but the mood and look are established in the all-important first ones by Michelle MacLaren, who directed some of the most brilliant episodes of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

Watching Constellation takes commitment, patience and attention, but you'll be rewarded for that effort with a haunting story that, at its center, is about the love between a mother and a daughter. It really touched me. At least it did in this universe.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: February 22, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we misidentify the cause of the Apollo 13 malfunction as an orbital collision. The cause was an onboard explosion.
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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