Imagine for a moment that you’ve known what you’ve wanted to do from a young age, that you’ve spent the majority of your life reaching toward a goal despite a lack of familial or even societal support. Now imagine that your goal is within reach. You can see it and all the possibilities that come with attainment. But to cross the finish line will mean making the kind of sacrifice you’ve only thought about in the abstract. In his feature-film debut, writer/director Luís Tinoco tackles all this and more in his film The Antares Paradox (La Paradoja de Antares), which is having its world premiere during Fantastic Fest 2022. In roughly 90-minutes, Tinoco highlights the metaphysical needs against the emotional needs of humanity in order to explore the contradictions.
As a storm rages above, growing closer to her location by the moment, IberSETI scientist working out of the E.A.R.T. Radio Astronomy Observatory, Alexandra (Andrea Trepat), starts her shift and discovers that a signal is being received from an unknown source. As she seeks to confirm the authenticity, something which could change how humanity perceives itself, she struggles not just with a continuous series of tech-related issues but also personal as her ill father takes a turn for the worst. With help only available either by phone or video, Alexandra is faced with a series of choices that will change her forever.
The question as to whether or not we’re alone in the universe is a question that’s plagued scientists and philosophers for generations. The argument against the search has been around almost as long. September 12th, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said of the U.S.’s desire to get to the moon, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” In response to the successful 1969 moon landing, artist Gil Scott-Heron released the spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon,” decrying the use of funds that could have been spent on the problems plaguing the citizens of the country. Though we’re a long way from 1970, and Tunoco’s film is set in Spain, the issues his film examines as they relate to the ethical and moral questions of the last 50+ years translate very well. Specifically, all of this tension is utilized by Tunoco to provide Alexandra, someone who’s pursuing their passion for extraterrestrial discovery, with an internal assault to match the external one occurring around her. The end result is a constant battering on her person and belief system that threatens to shatter her entirely and is made all the more powerful by creating a sense of isolation that transfers Alexandra’s myopic lifestyle into something tangible, forcing her to face what she truly believes.
The bulk of Paradox is handled with incredible ease by Trepat, who either deals with voices on a phone or on a screen. As the primary character, Trepat is in every scene, almost every shot, and it’s her performance which makes Paradox as nail-biting as it is. Tunoco does weaponize the factual defunding of science to create opportunities for distress (no back-up drives; decreased generator power; demoralized co-workers) just as much as he uses social forces to psychologically beat Alexandra so that there’re a scant few moments in which Trepat doesn’t have to convey some kind of struggle. Just as one problem is stamped out, another pops up. Just as that problem is reinforced, another breakdown occurs. Over and over, Trepat as Alexandra burrows deeper and deeper into professional conviction until she’s forced to examine it without cover, without safety, and without the knowledge of tomorrow. With only that moment, the precious seconds audibly ticking away in our, the audience’s ears, as Alexandra must choose between her ethics and morals, Paradox possesses the power to demolish.
In case you, dear reader, have fallen prey to the same (or similar) misshaping of definition as I, the word paradox doesn’t relate to a situation in which a contradiction is formed in which the original event can’t occur. Thanks to the use of time travel is science fiction, the meaning of paradox, contextually at least, has shifted. But explored literally, the word “paradox” refers to a person, situation, or action with contradictory qualities or phases. So while most may think of a paradox as an occurrence in which someone does something that would prevent the original action from ever taking place, within the scope of the film, the real meaning refers more toward the contradictions of knowing and not knowing something at the same time. Alexandra receives evidence of a signal coming from Antares and begins the protocol to confirm it; meanwhile, she’s pressed due to technological and organizational pressures to do the confirmation before time runs out *or* abandon it all entirely to see her father before he passes. The contradiction is in the conflict of her ethical and moral obligations.
As strong as Paradox is, there are choices made that indict that, as much as Alexandra is an expert in her field, she’s a bad scientist. The biggest example of this is the way she manages the satellite receiving the signal. EoM editor Crystal Davidson worked at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) for a summer and she explained to me that as soon as the storm started to rattle the deployed satellite antenna and the alarm sounded, it was Alexandra’s obligation to stow it because the high winds are very likely to damage the machinery. While refraining from doing this is an excellent narrative tool for Paradox, it actually jeopardizes the conclusion of the results post-verification and risks great damage to the observatory. So, it doesn’t matter if Alexandria does confirm the efficacy of the signal, everything happening to the antenna would make that confirmation highly questionable, thereby increasing the possibility that anything Alexandra does after the first time the antenna isn’t stowed is irrelevant. Narratively, it’s an excellent device, but the lack of soundness in the science derails the tension that Tunoco works so hard to create in the script. Up until the final moments of the film, Paradox bounces from one emotionally draining moment to the next as Alexandra works the problem, but then makes a choice that appears to fly in the face of it all. Of course, we, the audience, are seeing her on an extraordinarily tough day where she’s caught between her passion and her family, which can induce all manner of cognitive trip-ups, and the direction certainly wants the audience to fall on Alexandra’s side. But when one considers the emotional against the logical, there are a few aspects of Paradox which are, amusingly, contradictory.
Issues aside, The Antares Paradox is a hell of a calling card for a first-time director. The use of physical space, the understanding of the combative pressures in science, and the activation of natural rising tension makes the film truly an edge-of-your-seat ride. One is not likely to forget the feeling of Tunoco’s work, powered by Trepat’s performance, even if the particulars fall by the wayside. Considering how strong the film is on its own, that’s a strong win, not matter how you look at it.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2022.
For more information, head to the Fantastic Fest The Antares Project webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.