If you were adrift in space with one other person, would you complicate it by having sex? In the hypothetical, most people would probably answer yes — but in actuality, the prospect could go horribly wrong. As much as we try, it’s not easy to control our emotional response, and it can lead to ... complications. Kristian Mercado’s first feature film, If You Were The Last, explores whether or not we’d be able to resist the idea of potentially ruining the only viable connection we might have — and how the complications of romance in an the isolation of space can ramp up when the real world comes knocking.
If You Were the Last follows Jane (Zoe Chao) and Adam (Anthony Mackie), a pair of friends and coworkers who have been stuck on a spaceship adrift far from Earth for three years. Despite obviously being homesick and a bit hopeless, they’ve created an ideal life for themselves within the ship: a thriving ecosystem with plants and animals, a well-decorated and kitschy living space, music, movies, dancing, companionship. One day, Adam tosses out the idea that they could introduce a sexual relationship into the mix, and they slowly creep toward cementing it. Once they do, the sparks truly fly — but when they’re faced with the idea that they may be able to finally return home, they begin to realize how difficult it is to put those feelings back into the bottle.
The heart of that difficulty lies in the palpable chemistry between Mackie and Chao, who have a sexual and romantic tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. It’s a joy to watch them fall for one another — to borrow a phrase from a popular YA novel, “slowly, and then all at once” — and attempt to navigate the complications of it all. The pair spend a lot of the film solely with one another, and that time could quickly get tedious in the hands of less exciting and less connected actors. But each exchange, each quippy piece of dialogue, each pointed yet affection dig, enriches their dynamic. You can see the wheels turning for both of them as they weigh their options, and as they come to terms with what they begin to feel.
If You Were the Last is the latest, and one of the greatest, in the overarching canon of emotionally-driven science fiction.
The film's script, written by Angela Bourassa, is also quite tight and smart; her dialogue feels real in these actors’ mouths. The script breathes life into the characters, and is hilarious and sweet in all the right moments.
Working in tandem with the bond cultivated by his leads, Mercado establishes a really fun pace for the film in the first half with great stylized direction that seamlessly cuts from scene to scene. It allows the audience to get a feel for the dynamic between Jane and Adam and gives us the foundation on which we’ll judge their interactions as they careen slowly toward the shift in their relationship. Mercado switches things up in the second half, but that is to be expected; the characters shift to a different headspace, and with that comes a different way of viewing the world. Mercado understands and leans into that narrative device and uses it to shape a slower, more thoughtful pace as the film moves into different territory for its characters.
When you’re not completely captivated by Mackie and Chao’s engaging bond, the film pulls you in even further with the use of smart and stylized practical effects and an immersive, colorful set design. Not only does the spaceship feel lived in and loved, but it also feels like a place any audience member would be happy to call home. Aside from the whole never-going-back-to-Earth part, the duo’s ship is a true home. Its comforting layout and decor — stylized to look almost like a retro 1960s era home with bright colors and wood panelings — add to that security. The audience can feel their comfort in living there, and in turn, their resignation in living there as it relates to their perceived fates.
Though the film drags just a touch in the second half, If You Were The Last barrels toward a refreshingly uncertain ending. Jane and Adam’s fragile harmony is shattered, and they’re left to figure out how to assimilate back into the lives they left behind. Though Bourassa’s script somewhat sluggishly navigates the aftermath, the film’s sincerity and heart prove it is the latest, and one of the greatest, in the overarching canon of emotionally-driven science fiction.
If You Were the Last premiered March 11 at SXSW.
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