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Apple TV+’s “Constellation” Gets Lost in Space with a Dragged-Out Mystery: TV Review

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The new Apple TV+ series “Constellation” is a space drama, a category in which its deep-pocketed platform has developed something of a preoccupation. (There’s also “For All Mankind,” “Foundation” and, technically, the most recent season of “The Morning Show.”) But the show also exemplifies a type of series so recognizable it’s become practically a genre unto itself: a story that calls for the concision of a feature film that’s been stretched out to fill a TV-sized number of episodes.

“Constellation” stars Noomi Rapace as Jo Ericsson, an astronaut who survives a deadly collision at the International Space Station — only to experience disturbing visions back on Earth. The what/why/how of Jo’s experience in orbit could make for a gripping mystery, but creator and sole screenwriter Peter Harness stretches these questions over eight hours, killing their momentum and stretching the show’s worthwhile elements far too thin.

The first two hours of “Constellation” (both directed by “Game of Thrones” veteran Michelle MacLaren) are a riff on “Gravity,” the technical triumph from Alfonso Cuarón that itself weighed in at just 90 minutes. When an unidentified object strikes the ISS, the ensuing damage kills Jo’s American teammate Paul Lancaster (William Catlett), who’d been conducting an experiment dubbed the Cold Atomic Lab, or CAL, on behalf of his NASA commander Henry “Bud” Caldera (Jonathan Banks). After sending her fellow survivors ahead of her, Jo manually navigates an escape pod to reentry. It’s a harrowing ordeal, but pales in comparison to the emotional minefield that now separates Jo from her husband Magnus (James D’Arcy) and 10-year-old daughter Alice (Rosie Coleman), who’ve bonded in her yearlong absence.

“Constellation” opens with a flash-forward to an agitated Jo driving Alice to a family cabin in northern Sweden. Like many such beginnings, the scene is less effective at hooking the viewer than the linear narrative that follows, and as these glimpses into the future continue to recur, they’re more muddling than intriguing. There’s a fine line between enticing the audience with a promise for answers and confusing them with an amorphous mass of hints and atmospherics. By straining to sustain a suspenseful mood over an entire season, “Constellation” crosses to the wrong side of that divide.

As Jo readjusts to life near the European Space Agency’s headquarters in Cologne, Germany, she quickly realizes something is amiss — though it’s unclear whether the problem is with the world around her or her own unsettled mind. She misremembers the name of Paul’s widow and the color of her family car. Alice can’t understand her when she speaks Swedish, though she was fluent before her mother left. Most controversially, Jo insists the projectile that hit the ISS was the corpse of a Soviet cosmonaut, a possibility her employers dismiss out of hand as the hallucination of an oxygen-deprived brain. Rapace makes a meal of Jo’s unraveling; in one gripping sequence, she’s horrified and fascinated to discover she can play the piano, despite insisting she’s never played. 

Banks, meanwhile, is more or less on autopilot as a grizzled, cantankerous veteran exasperated with his less experienced peers. But “Constellation” keeps its two central performances in isolation. It doesn’t take very long to guess the rough outlines of what’s happening to Jo, a hunch the show doesn’t confirm until its sixth episode. “Constellation” could fill the time by letting Banks and Rapace interact with each other, or even exploring the intriguing politics and evolving nature of modern space travel. Characters observe that cooperative ventures between governments like the aging ISS, now nearly a quarter century old, are slowly giving way to private, for-profit efforts like SpaceX. Yet these threads are never developed. Instead, we get endless shots of Caldera staring at himself in the mirror or Alice crying out for one of her parents.

With a more compact runtime, it would be less noticeable that “Constellation” only explains the purpose of Caldera’s experiment with vague proclamations about finding a new state of gravity, and the lack of clarity around basic questions like location and chronology would come across as more purposeful. As it exists, “Constellation” is a couple of strong performances stranded in an uncanny vacuum, not unlike Jo left dangling in an abandoned ISS.

The first three episodes of “Constellation” are now streaming on Apple TV+, with remaining episodes airing weekly on Wednesdays.