Review: Psychological space thriller ‘Constellation’ turns science fiction into science friction on Apple TV+

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Constellation' on Apple TV+ (Part 1)

In space, no one can hear you scream — and on earth, things aren’t always what they seem.

That’s the freaky existential premise of the mind-bending psychological space thriller “Constellation,” which premiered its first three episodes on Feb. 21 and now drops Episode 4 this Wednesday on Apple TV+.

Created by Peter Harness (“The War of the Worlds” on BBC One), the eight-episode series follows an astronaut named Jo, who returns to earth after a disaster in space and discovers that her life is now bizarrely fractured. She sets out to expose the hidden secrets of space travel, while piecing her personal life back together on earth.

Swedish actress Noomi Rapace returns to the genre after starring in Ridley Scott’s underrated “Alien” prequel “Prometheus” (2012) where she had to perform emergency surgery on herself inside a claustrophobic chamber to remove a ferocious alien from her stomach before it became a chest burster. She also played the original Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009), meaning she’s no stranger to mysteries in the shadows.

In “Constellation,” her performance is more like Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013), using grit, determination and acumen to find a way home after an explosion. While that film ended with Bullock crawling from the sea onto the land in an evolution allegory, Rapace returns to a split world with a strained husband Magnus (James D’Arcy) and conflicting visions of her daughter Alice (played by twins Davina and Rosie Coleman).

The logic of it all comes in exposition by D.C. native Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”) as Apollo 18 alum Henry Caldera, who explains quantum physics and the parallel nature of atoms. In public, he’s the face of Mission Control, prickly with the prodding cable-news media. In private, he speaks covertly with shady NASA officer Irene Lysenko (Barbara Sukowa), who denies Jo’s eye-witness testimony of what actually caused the shuttle explosion.

That reveal is a jump scare to rival Ben Gardner’s boat in “Jaws” (1975), this time directed by Michelle MacLaren. Having helmed episodes of “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld,” her best prep was “The Leftovers” for its premise of family members suddenly disappearing. In “Constellation,” they disappear and reappear in freaky horror scenes, foreshadowed by multiple reflections in mirrors and shuttle windows.

The trippiest directorial touch comes when Jo hears knocking on the space hatch as the camera circles around her head only for the background to change to a hallway door leading to a bead necklace on a bedroom wardrobe like the clap game in “The Conjuring.” After freaking us out in the first two episodes, MacLaren hands the reins to Oliver Hirschbiegel (“Downfall”), who keeps the waking nightmares going in the third and fourth episodes.

While these trippy sequences are delicious for sci-fi horror fans, casual viewers will likely be confused: “Who’s that? Why are there two daughters? What timeline are we in again?” I’ll admit that I got confused by the script jumping between: (a) flashbacks of Jo’s pre-space life, (B) her disastrous shuttle experience, and (C) her new post-space existence, featuring wacky hallucinations at snowy cabins that may send you down Reddit rabbit holes.

However, I urge you to stick with it for at least the first three episodes when we finally start to get some answers. I understand why Apple dropped the first three chapters all at once, because I might have otherwise bailed, but now I’m curious to press “play” on chapters four through eight. I hope it sticks the landing like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972) or Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (2014), whose mind-bending finales continue to grow on me.

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Constellation' on Apple TV+ (Part 2)

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2024 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up