– By J.W. Fox –
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
Every so often it is good to give an indie, low-profile science fiction movie a watch. Of course, there is risk. They can be bad. Really bad. There are dozens that come from the Sharknado tradition, something which is called sci-fi only because these movies used to be on the SyFy Channel. Usually it’s easy to spot a campy, low-brow sci-fi flick but sometimes a few bad ones can sneak by with what looks like a decent trailer.
After doing my homework, I decided to give Clara a chance. Written and directed by Akash Sherman, it is about an astrophysicist who is obsessed with finding an Earth-like planet with the potential to support life, perhaps intelligent life. His obsession consumes him, threatening his position on the university faculty, until a young woman enters his life. With her help, he slowly starts to see beyond his own possession and at the same time finding new inspiration.
While it isn’t a bad movie, it isn’t really science fiction. It is at its core, a tragic love story.
Dr. Isaac Bruno, played by Patrick J. Adams (from TV show Suits), is hyper-rational, socially withdrawn, but brilliant astrophysicist. His great endeavor is to discover an Earth-like planet by analyzing the data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Telescope. There’s no time for people, love, or antiquated social constructs like marriage. Enter the love interest, Clara, played by Troian Bellisario. She becomes his research assistant/roommate.
You can probably fill in the rest. There is a little of the opposites attract: Isaac the cold, conforming rationalist and Clara the artsy free-spirit. What stops it from being a romantic comedy (other than not being funny) is Isaac’s tragic past. He is a man who has largely been shaped by the loss of his family. After the death of his child, he and his wife divorce leaving him alone and cynical about finding love or happiness in his lifetime. Only his work can bring him meaning.
Tragic Love Story
Isaac and Clara kept making me think of the classic TV show Dharma and Greg. The rationale, uptight, socially withdrawn man is drawn out of his work by a beautiful young free spirit. Opposites attract and what not. Except Isaac wasn’t born a cold, unfeeling man. Isaac’s withdrawal from humanity came after losing a child and then his marriage. His developing relationship with Clara pushes him to stop hiding from the past and begin moving on, such as visiting his ex-wife for the first time to ask for help.
The audience is expected to see Clara is the woman who would break him of this love-forsaking attitude. Part love interest, part muse. For the first half, that is exactly what the movie wants you to believe. Adams and Bellisario have some chemistry but not it doesn’t exactly jump off the screen. Clara’s untimely end definitely brings forth the waterworks but the movie isn’t really about death either. What is ultimately discovered is that there is something connecting all of us that transcends time, space, and possibly death. Sappy and overly romantic? Yes, but the movie doesn’t leave it at that.
After Clara’s death, the science takes over. Somehow, Isaac is able to finish and presents his findings: an anomaly in the data. With some ingenious math and deductive reasoning, Isaac proves that the TESS data shows an artificial moon orbiting an exoplanet. The reveal of the moon is the coolest part of the movie. Up until then, the science is mainly expository in nature, meant to tell you what Isaac’s work involves.
As cool as the discovery was, the “how” was a little cheap. Clara convinced Isaac to close his eyes and try to “feel” his way to his discovery. In a pin the tail on the donkey moment, he moves towards the wall of his apartment covered in stars by a projector. It is the star located on the exact place he touched the wall, that contained the artificial moon.
The breakthrough did not feel earned however. The close-your-eyes moment is brief and might as well have been a Jedi moment. The move throws in cutaways to beautiful scenes of stars, nebulae and other beautiful astro-phenomenon. The juxtaposition of human story and the Universe is a subtle hint that distance is irrelevant. Not only distance but death. Whether it is love between two people or first contact over light years of distance, it is all the same when particles are entangled.
In the end, this felt more like a “love conquers all” or “the human connection is the most important” kind of messaging. Not exactly scientific, but really the movie isn’t downplaying hard science. It is almost arguing that love and connection may have a quantum mechanics explanation. Isaac discovers the moon and helps make first contact because his particles were entangled with theirs.
Who is Clara?
The movie hints that Clara intentionally sought out Isaac to help him make his discovery. As she is dying, she regrets not being able to see his face when he “sees it.” She keeps a pouch full of stones from her many journeys that she likes to play with, arranging them in a configuration identical to the star constellation that includes Isaac’s special star and moon. Was she sent to help him find them and make first contact? Was she really an alien? Or maybe just entangled with him as well.
So Why Isn’t This Movie Awesome?
Hard science, compelling human drama, and an ending open to interpretation… all the makings of great science fiction. So why are audiences giving it such mediocre reviews? Why isn’t it getting the attention of nerds everywhere?
The true meat of the movie is the love story, and a love story requires chemistry between the two lovers most of all. It is not that Adams and Bellisario lacked chemistry, but what was there was not all that compelling. It is hard to like Isaac throughout the movie, although he gains a lot of sympathy from his tragic past. Clara is more likable but isn’t particularly charming as free-spirit muses go. The science fiction tropes stay tucked in the background until the end, where it is difficult to carry the movie. A cool ending, for sure, but not enough to pull up the rest of the film.
It didn’t help that a lot of the movie is just them working or talking in his apartment, or walking around the city chatting away. The two really don’t do much on screen.
Clara is definitely superior to a lot of the pulp science fiction churned out by low-budget production companies. Smart, thoughtful, and beautiful in a way, it was worth watching. As to whether it will leave a lasting impression, I am not so sure.
J.W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls under the pen name Jacob Foxx. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works for a small biotech company in Raleigh, North Carolina.