One of the biggest concerns for any space agency is understanding how the mind can unravel so spectacularly when we are truly on our own, and finding ways to stop it. The independent sci-fi film, 400 Days, directed by Matt Osterman, starts off with the idea of placing four astronaut candidates, played by Brandon Routh, Caity Lotz, Ben Feldman, and Dane Cook, underground to simulate a space voyage to Mars. What ends up is a descent into madness but neither the viewer nor the crew can be sure.
Real Life Isolation Experiments
The idea of setting up an experiment to simulate the conditions of a long space journey is nothing new. Between 2007 and 2011, Russia, the European Space Agency and China conducted Mars-500, an experiment lasting 520-days designed to simulate a manned spaceflight to Mars. The six men who took part in the experiment were burdened with boredom and a loss of motivation.
Biosphere 2 was a similar experiment that got similar results. Two of the crew members never spoke to each other beyond mission-critical exchanges. One of the participants, Jane Poynter, said their pseudo-silent treatment lasted 18 months. Talk about giving someone the silent treatment.
The human mind does poorly when left alone with little stimulation. This, for me, was the most interesting premise of the film. In the words of Leonard McCoy,
Space is disease and danger, wrapped in darkness and silence.
So what exactly do you do when your perception of reality is important for the success of your mission, as well as the survival of yourself and your colleagues?
After a brief news conference, the four astronaut candidates enter an underground bunker to start the experiment. One of the conditions of the experiment is they can not leave the bunker or they permanently write-off any chances of ever going to space. This a definite incentive to complete the experiment but we all know if they did that, there would be no movie, right?
During the course of the crew's extended vacation in a cramped room without a view, the hallucinations set in. Whether this is a natural part of their fracturing minds or something to do with the suspected immune boosting shots they get from team doctor, Emily McTier (Caity Lotz), it begins to tear the team apart.
The movie starts off strong. Each character's back stories opens up some potential conflict and some interesting character-driven story elements. Unfortunately, this never happens. For whatever reason, the film fails to find any direction and the supposedly intelligent crew make mistakes not expected of astronauts. You almost want them to leave the bunker and fire themselves in the process.
What develops is a film that should have made you question the crew's grip on reality but as the film progresses, it turns into horror. Now there is nothing wrong with a film that makes you question reality and whether a character's experiences are real. There are some really good films out there that do this well. Neither is there anything wrong with a good horror set in the claustrophobic confines of space travel. The movie Alien is a good example of this. Again, there are films that do this well. This does not mean the movies has no redeeming qualities. Someone obviously spent money on visuals. This leaves us with a movie that looks beautiful but is not worth watching. My problem is 400 Days tries to do both and ends up doing neither.