Directed By Alejandra Marquez Abella
Starring – Michael Pena, Rosa Salazar, Julio Cesar Cedillo
The Plot – Follows Jose Hernandez (Pena), the first migrant farmworker to travel to space. A tale of perseverance, community and sacrifice to accomplish an impossible dream.
Rated PG for thematic elements and adult language
While biopics are often condemned by a virtual minefield of tropes that make up the entirety of their interchangeable structures, “A Million Miles Away” confronts Jose Hernandez’s story with an integral combination of patience and heart that make his migrant dreamer’s story a refreshingly endearing engagement. It begins with Abella, who rises to the occasion of her double duty with her single most ambitious production to date, flourishing big screen appeal for Amazon Prime in everything from breathtaking imagery, to cleverly unique editing transitions, which constantly prove an artistic integrity behind her motivations. From here, her screenwriting capabilities, along with Bettina Gilois and Hernan Jimenez zero in not only on the extent of Jose’s journey to the stars, with many bouts of corporate racism and family turmoil that feel grounded in reality, but also in the element of sacrifice, which the film proves isn’t always Jose’s to bare alone. Responsibly, the script utilizes his wife’s disposition in raising five kids alone just as much as it does Jose’s, giving us a greater sense of the stakes that one man’s decision has towards an entire family, but not necessarily one that the film’s script plays for emphasized dramatic intensity. Because the film is blessed with a two hour run time, it’s able to call upon and draw out more of those nuanced moments between family interactions that are often left on the cutting room floor, but here attain vital necessity as the fuel to Jose’s drive that continuously drive him and us towards the mission at hand, all the while responsibly articulating the extensive training and preparation that goes into becoming an astronaut. Speaking of Jose, he’s performed exceptionally by Pena, who turns in his most impactful performance, which surprisingly doesn’t require the crutch of humor that have defined his career to this point. Besides the fact that Pena is a lot older than the character’s he’s portraying, his resiliency and determination are ultimately his character’s most defining features, saddling an endearing relatability to the character that Pena feels perfect for. He’s joined by the sturdy stocism of Salazar, whom he shares a naturally tangible kind of evolving chemistry that effortlessly matches their expanding connection of dynamic, but beyond that a charismatic opportunity for Rosa that proves she can more than hold her own against a captivating presence like Pena’s. Lastly, while I have issues with the English soundtrack used as a framing device throughout the narrative, the Spanish spoken tracks used during moments of family interaction or even scenes set in Mexico, were a nice touch to the cultural integrity of the product. There’s a bit of a surprise in this aspect behind every corner, so I won’t name any by title, but I will say to pay close attention to the opening act, as many of the lyrics from these classics inscribe a secondary meaning when held in contrast to Jose’s dreamer’s tale.
Though most of the experience resonated a feel good flattery without coming across as meandering or melodramatic, a couple of key hinderances kept “A Million Miles Away” from reaching cruising altitude, beginning with some underwhelming special effects of the C.G variety. These can be seen in a butterfly with its own significance to Jose’s journey, but beyond that some artificial backdrops during the climax, which were both overwhelmed with lifeless artificiality. The butterfly is definitely the more obvious of the two, especially in the way it moves and interacts with human characters, and while they’re only present a couple of times throughout the engagement, the butterfly particularly takes away from the investment to the scenes it accompanies, feeling like an unnecessary visual cue that only draws attention to the most obviously improper images. Aside from this, I previously mentioned that the Spanish side of the soundtrack was solid, while the English side disappointed, and most of that is due to the framing device of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s that this film takes us through. Instead of feeling comfortable in the subtleties of production designs and wardrobe choices, the film goes out of its way to desparately remind us of its time designation, with popular tracks so obviously on-the-nose that they completely obliterate subtleties, while taking away from a mostly perfect brand of production values. Finally, while I appreciated that the film took time to illustrate the extent of Jose’s journey, it comes with a bit of disappointment that its flattest moments come from the climax, where the big pay-off finally materializes. Part of the problem is certainly where it happens in the run time, with only ten minutes remaining, but much blame can equally be paid an abrupt ending, which offers us little time to reap the benefits of Jose’s completed mission before on-screen text rudely departs us. If the film used even ten more of its minutes to further explore the immensity or complications of Jose’s time in space, it would hold more importance to the value of the story, but as it stands, this is only a film that values the journey, and not necessarily what’s waiting on the other side.
“A Million Miles Away” does fly high with a sincerely sentimental biopic in the life of migrant-turned-astronaut Jose Hernandez, but can’t quite reach the stars, as a result of some improper elements of production that nearly spoil its splendor. With credibly authentic and humanly heartfelt performances from Pena and Salazar, as well as a thorough exploration of sacrifices from many contrasting angles, Alejandra Marquez Abella places her storytelling focus where other biopics don’t bother to go, proving that a vital sense of family and community go a long way in harvesting a hero.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-