Constellation, review: navel-gazing replaces stargazing in muddled space drama

Noomi Rapace as astronaut Jo
Noomi Rapace as astronaut Jo - Apple TV+

In space, no one can hear you yawn. That’s a rare positive for Noomi Rapace’s troubled astronaut in Constellation (Apple TV+), who spends her early screen-time in this tepid and baffling interstellar drama trapped aboard a malfunctioning space station. Amid patchy communication with ground control, there’s not much for her to do beyond quietly panic – probably the best response to a script that lurches from one blandly hysterical moment to another.

There is a rich tradition of blending science fiction with horror. But rather than tap into the exhilarating dread of classics of the genre such as Alien and Event Horizon, writer Peter Harness (McMafia) struggles to achieve a cohesive tone – or even tell a comprehensible story. Rapace’s astronaut, Johanna Ericsson, is introduced to us racing across northern Sweden with her daughter, Alice (Rosie Coleman). The weather is ominous, the child dismayed – and Johanna seemingly undergoing some manner of existential meltdown.

A flashback to five weeks earlier reveals the origins of her trauma. On a spacewalk at the International Space Station, she has a surprise encounter with the skeletal remains of a Soviet cosmonaut – which seemingly crashed into the ISS having spent decades orbiting the Earth.

That Jo might be an unreliable narrator is hinted at throughout. Having returned to Earth, she is confused about her old life. How is it that the family car is blue rather than the red she remembers? Why do her husband (James D’Arcy) and daughter gawp at her as if she’s sprouted an extra head? Why can Alice no longer speak Swedish?

Rapace works hard to sell her character as a rational woman grappling with a reality distorted by forces beyond her control. There is also a gruffly charismatic performance by Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut of Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul) as a former Nasa astronaut with dark secrets about his distant past and Ericsson’s recent mission.

Apple throws so much cash at its TV projects it’s easy to become blasé about the lavish production values. Yet Constellation truly is stunning to behold: Rapace’s spacewalk, for instance, features better special effects than any Marvel movie in the last 10 years.

Alas, the Hollywood budget is an uneasy fit with a plot that plays out like Black Mirror without the satire. At the conclusion of the three episodes with which the show launches, it is clear some sort of ominous and murky conspiracy is afoot. However, to reel the viewer in, Constellation needs to move faster. Instead, it floats about in a zero-gravity funk. The view is spectacular but the lethargic orbit makes for frustrating watching.

The first three episodes of Constellation are available now on Apple TV+; weekly thereafter