Pat Manocchia narrates Van Neistat’s A Space Program with a cadence akin to Guy Maddin’s, talking with a deadpan, poetic rhythm that complements the film’s wondrous content. Manocchia’s words supplement on-screen text—a playful use of introductions via an ongoing, bubbling electronic score and tracking shots ending in close-ups. These formal elements convey the processes by which artist Tom Sachs, as “mission commander,” leads a team of astronauts, carpenters, and philosophers in their efforts to create a handmade mission to Mars through the procedure of bricolage, its contexts adopted from anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss, where new, creative processes are developed through limited means. The effect initially delights for its peppy visual storytelling, but steadily becomes more descriptive of Sachs’s art rather than a commentary on it before devolving into a more freeform, tangential thesis about feedback loops in the film’s final third.
After the opening, the filmmakers frequently cut between a limited number of locations, which includes footage of Sachs overlooking the “mission” as it unfolds, “crew members” about the spacecraft, and applauding audience members looking at the screen that displays the events. Sachs seeks nothing less than a fully functional space mission set on a large sound stage that allows two female members of the crew to land on Mars. Whenever problems arise, like a lack of cooling oil within an astronaut’s suit, the filmmakers pause for a montage explaining the process, but there’s no sense of how this coverage of a space-mission simulation is meant to either generate tension or speak to (wo)mankind’s capacity for understanding the universe.
Though it opens with a quote from Buckminster Fuller about how “science and religion” seek to answer whether or not “we are alone,” A Space Program responds with tongue-in-cheek bombast, such as yells pleading, “We need that oxygen down here now!,” jokily included inside the film’s nesting-doll structure. The approach yields some humorous reveals: “mission control” is merely a trailer only a hundred or so feet from “Mars,” and each close-up of a pressed button, a turned wrench, or a fired toy rocket speaks to the ways digital cinema has largely lost the art of modeling and miniaturization. However, the filmmakers create no material sense of these divisions. “Mars” is consistently spoken of in voiceover as if crew members were on the actual planet, and the film’s larger purpose, be it about the ardor of handmade crafts or Sachs’s artistic ambitions, never emerges with any consistent focus.
More confounding is a scene late in the film where two astronauts exchange scatological invectives on the soundtrack, which then transitions to one of their pained shrieks. The scene subsequently dissolves into a prolonged IBM infomercial from 1960 directed by Charles and Ray Eames, and in one fell swoop, A Space Program leaps from comedy to horror to…institutional critique? The infomercial details how “feedback has now become a science and an art,” but the filmmakers quickly jump that ship to a close-up of a chainsaw making its way through a human heart and then a human brain. These are inspired, graphic visual choices, but suddenly the filmmakers are drastically far afield, offering a hypothesis on “stabilizing the system” as a metaphor for human sanity, which necessitates proper communication—feedback—between the heart and brain. If the filmmakers have, at this point, decided to abandon an explanation of Sachs’s art, they’ve also abdicated ownership of any larger, coherent argument for the film’s whole.