Though less than thirty minutes, Oscar Sharp’s short film, The Kármán Line, perfectly illustrates the tragic reality and painful process of watching a loved one slowly wilt away from a terminal disease. The film follows the experiences of a British suburban family as a mother, Sarah (Olivia Colman), suddenly develops a surprising medical condition where she floats off the floor and becomes separated from her husband Dave (Shaun Dooley), and daughter Carly (Chelsea Corfield). At first, Sarah's condition seems comical as she flails a few inches off the floor but the condition soon worsens and she starts rising even further. Medical experts and her family unable to do anything but watch helplessly her condition worsens.
It is human nature to hope for, and expect, the best of any situation. Even as Sarah continues to rise to the point where her head presses against the ceiling, her family still hopes that things will soon return to normal; chores are left undone as dirty dishes remain unwashed in the kitchen sink. This is a family in denial but they face grim reality when their doctor, Dr. Mary Benham (Julia Watson) tells them there is no cure and the disease is terminal. Sarah will continue to rise until she crosses the Kármán line.
The Kármán Line
The Kármán line represents the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and space. The line lies at an altitude of 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth's surface and named after Hungarian physicist, Theodore von Kármán, who calculated that the atmosphere would be too thin to support aeronautical flight; a vehicle would have to travel faster than its orbital velocity to generate lift.
As the film progresses, we see that the Kármán line is not just the physical demarcation for the edge of space but rather a metaphor for the final journey we all make. As Sarah ascends to the ether, she is both physically and emotionally separated from her family as the distance between them grows. This distance further grows once Sarah moves past the roof of her house and she is able to maintain intermittent contact with her family using an old flip phone.
We see the difficulty all three family members go through as they slowly become isolated from each other. As much as Carly wants to spend time with her mother when she calls on the phone, it is difficult and this further creates more distance between the two women. This is one thing that Sharp makes clear: the loss of a loved one to a terminal disease is not instantaneous but a gradual process that sometimes takes a long time.
This does not necessarily mean that Sarah's journey to the Kármán line is always a sad one. While she certainly experiences the anger and frustration of dealing with her disease, there are moments when she finds joy in the world around her. In one scene she enjoys watching the beauty of migrating swiftlets as they fly and swarm around her.
This film is rich in metaphor and there is no one way to interpret this story; anyone watching is likely to draw his/her own meaning based on their own personal beliefs and experiences. Given the story's theme, it would be surprising if this was not somewhat personal story for the film's director and it is. Sharp was inspired by his mother's battle with leukemia.
At the end of the story, Dave and Carly have to do what any family must after losing a loved one: find a way to move on. And they do, even if they struggle to do so. Like many families, there will never be answers. What caused Sarah's strange disease? Was it aliens? What happened after she crossed the Kármán line are all questions we may never find answers. Though heartbreaking, Sharp manages to tell a story that both sensitive, profound, and worth a watch.