Actors are expensive. That’s why many low-budget sci-fi movies follow one person as they journey through space. Maybe another person visits and gives the plot a reason to happen, or maybe their only companion is an A.I.
At first glance, this 2017 film seems to firmly belong in this subgenre. But by using a touching love story as its through-line, this sci-fi thriller offers twists and turns that will challenge your views of sci-fi tropes.
Orbiter 9 is a 2017 Spanish and Colombian sci-fi space thriller, written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Hatem Khraiche. It opens much like many “solo journey” space movies, showing the day-to-day life of protagonist Helena as she exercises, talks to her A.I. companion Rebecca, and harvests greens from her hydroponic garden. She reminisces over archived footage of her parents, who sacrificed themselves so she would survive to make it to the far-off planet of Celeste.
One day, a repair astronaut named Alex docks with the ship in order to repair the ship’s oxygen supply. Helena, having never seen a man before, is head over heels in love with him. She even convinces him to spend the night with her, saying it’s her only chance. But eventually, Alex must leave, and he exits the airlock... only to find himself in the woods, on Earth.
Helena is actually a test subject in a massive experiment that aims to determine if a long-haul trip to a far-off planet is even feasible. It’s an incredibly personal project for Alex, who was the mastermind behind a manned flight to Celeste that failed and killed everyone on board. As he copes with this tragedy, he visits Silvia, a therapist who communicates to him through an animated wolf avatar like a mental health virtual YouTuber.
Alex, wracked with guilt about his past, is strangely enamored with Helena, and they plan to run off together. But there are all sorts of issues that stand in their way, from Helena’s sensitivity to the sun after a childhood spent underground to Alex’s boss, who will stop at nothing to keep the experiments running without interruption.
Orbiter 9 pulls no punches with its plot. Every few scenes, there’s a twist that changes everything, showing a real precision and control with a story that’s difficult to find outside of spy movies and psychological thrillers.
To the untrained eye, Orbiter 9 could pass as a blockbuster thanks to its careful use of resources. The production design is excellent, with elements like doors and control panels looking believably futuristic and practical. There are hardly any special effects, but every sci-fi element still feels like technology from decades away in the future.
If you’re looking for a movie that feels bigger than it is, if you love a twist, or if you just want to live in a grounded futuristic world for 90 minutes, Orbiter 9 is the perfect escape.
Orbiter 9 is now streaming on Netflix in the U.S.