Tense and Terrific New Space Thriller 'Constellation' Is Streaming's Next Stellar Sci-Fi Series

Noomi Rapace and Jonathan Banks star in Apple TV+'s new mystery, which follows astronauts grappling with their trips to the heavens.
Sarah Ward
Published on February 22, 2024
Updated on February 25, 2024

If a great getaway to a beach, island or faraway city can be life-changing, what does a journey to space do? So ponders Constellation, among other questions. This new Apple TV+ series, which started its eight-part first season on Wednesday, February 21, is another of the platform's beloved mysteries — see also: Criminal Record, The Changeling, The Crowded Room, Hijack and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters since mid-2023 alone, and that list isn't exhaustive — with no shortage of queries floating through its tense frames. Inquiries are sparked instantly, from the moment that a mother in a cabin in northern Sweden, where there's snow as far as the eye can see but a frost infecting more than just the temperature, leaves her pre-teen daughter to follow a voice. The screams that she seeks out are yelling "mama!" — and what they mean, and why she's abandoning one girl to find another, is just one of the matters that Constellation interrogates.

The woman is Jo Ericsson, as played by Noomi Rapace with the maternal devotion that also marked her turn in Lamb, plus the protective instincts that were key in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant as well — alongside the scrutiny and adaptability that was evident in her work in You Won't Be Alone, and the fierceness that helped bring her to fame as Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films. Jo is an astronaut, and Europe's representative on the International Space Station when Constellation jumps backwards from its opening icy horror to a different kind of terror. Not long out from returning back to earth, she FaceTimes with her nine-year-old daughter Alice (Rosie and Davina Coleman, The Larkins) and husband Magnus (James D'Arcy, Oppenheimer). Then, something goes bump in the sky. Trauma leaves people changed, too; what if this incident, during which setting foot on our pale blue dot again is anything but assured, isn't the only distressing facet of travelling to the heavens?

On the at-risk ISS, on a spacewalk to locate the source of the collision, Jo finds the mummified body of what looks like a 60s-era Russian cosmonaut. There'll soon be another astronaut dead inside the station, destroyed infrastructure, the first escape pod shuttling her three remaining colleagues back to terra firma and Jo left alone trying to repair the second so that she herself can alight home. Where both Gravity and Moon spring to mind in Constellation's initial space-set scenes, plus Proxima in the show's focus on mother-daughter connections (Interstellar, Ad Astra and First Man have dads covered), it's the earthbound Dark that feels like a touchstone once Jo is back among her loved ones. There's a similar moodiness to this series, a feeling that characters can't always trust what they think is plainly apparent and a certainty that nothing is simply linear about what's occurring.

Her stint above the planet has made its imprint on Jo, but it's her everyday life that seems altered. Whether or not Alice can speak Swedish, the colour of the family car, if Jo can play the piano, why Magnus is chilly towards her: with each, what confronts Jo post-ISS conflicts with what she can recall prior to ascending to the station. Roscosmos' Irena Lysenko (Barbara Sukowa, Air) is also wary of her claims about spying a decades-old USSR cadaver. And the NASA equivalent, Nobel Prize-winning former Apollo astronaut Henry Caldera (Jonathan BanksBetter Call Saul), is concerned only with a quantum-physics experiment that was taking place on the orbiting base, gathering data about a possible new state of matter, which Jo has no recollection of.

It might appear convenient that the psychological effects of long-term space travel fuel Jo's research mission on the station, but Constellation creator and writer Peter Harness — who boasts Doctor Who, Wallander, McMafia and The War of the Worlds on his resume — could never be accused of valuing neatness over depth. Unravelling the show's debut season with patience and deliberation, and with Joseph Cedar (Our Boys), Oliver Hirschbiegel (Unwanted) and Michelle MacLaren (an Emmy-winner for Breaking Bad) directing, he's dedicated to ensuring that the series intensely ruminates on the liminal. Constellation is about disorientation and transition, about the space where being too much of something and not enough of another smash and clash, and about coping with realising that life is always what happens in-between — as well as the fact that sometimes that truth applies more literally than others.

As a thriller and a mystery, Constellation names Jo's daughter cannily; tumbling down the rabbit hole is a solid parallel. Viewers won't spy cakes and bottles labelled "eat me" and "drink me", but there are pills and supplements. No one goes chasing a walking, talking white bunny; however, a rabbit toy does feature, and clinging onto what Jo knows is real is just as elusive. While there's no Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Bud Caldera (also Banks) mirrors much about Henry, except that he's now working the sci-fi convention circuit. And although cries of "off with her head" are absent, the dismissals from those around Jo about what's happening with her perception is its own equivalent.

Alice in Wonderland comparisons were always going to fit a story about curiouser and curiouser minds pursuing wild adventures, then endeavouring to reclaim their footing. At times, especially in remote lodgings in freezing woodland, the dark fairy-tale vibe beats stronger. But again, even when Constellation dances with fantasy like it's clutching onto a waltz partner — and does the same with eeriness as well — the series never stops being grounded in human bonds, emotions, yearnings and existential concerns. As the reality of both being alive and facing mortality, the urge to understand our place in the cosmos and the sheer enormity of the universe thrum throughout the show regardless of whether it's in space or on land, each is always brought back to people, rather than remaining mere concepts.

Rapace, Banks, both Coleman sisters and Sukowa are especially instrumental in anchoring Constellation's twists, turns and big-thinking ideas in the show's characters — and making it so compelling. It isn't just as slickly made as Apple TV+'s fellow excellent recent sci-fi series Severance and Silo, then, and as gripping in its mysteries, but as rivetingly acted. Banks, doing double duty after over a decade as Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul's Mike Ehrmantraut, is particularly emblematic: that there's a chasm between what we want to comprehend and what's around us gleams in his eyes as both Henry and Bud, while his twin parts equally demonstrate how differently it glints from person to person.

Check out the trailer for Constellation below:

Constellation streams via Apple TV+ from Wednesday, February 21. Read our interview with Jonathan Banks.

Published on February 22, 2024 by Sarah Ward
Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x