Scientists are always so much more magnetic and articulate, have much more of a flare for the dramatic, in the movies.
But when they finally confirm there’s life, even intelligent life, elsewhere in the universe, you have to hope their spokesperson has a sense of occasion and finds the words that seem to come easily to actors performing as scientists in a screenplay written with drama in mind.
“Clara” is a movie with more than a few drama queens — and kings — in its scientists. It’s a science fiction love story ostensibly about a young astronomer so lost in the cosmos that he “can’t see the life happening right in front of” his eyes.
The love story falls a little short, but the scientific sense of “the moment” is often spot-on in this mixed-bag of a debut from Canadian writer-director Akash Sherman.
In a world on the brink, seemingly, of discovering life on other worlds, suggested by the film’s satellite launch prologue, Dr. Isaac Bruno (Patrick J. Adams) is consumed with being The Guy. As in, the person who finds proof first.
He is lost in the probabilities, seemingly broken-hearted and impatient that it hasn’t happened before now. He can’t even get through the college course he teaches or do the subservient work of assisting a lead scientist on another project without wandering off subject and into the search for planets that might support alien life.
What others things could be more important to humanity than answering the question. ‘Are we alone?'”
It gets him put on administrative leave. He’s barely got the time to be bitter about it. He’s that wrapped up in this hunt.
He advertises for an assistant, and is in the act of puffing up his chest to dismiss her out of hand, when she pulls a little saleswomanship to play the pity card.
He’s seen Clara (Troian Bellisario) painting the helix/black hole mural at the entrance to the space sciences building where he teaches. She has no real tech or science qualifications for the job. But “this is Eva,” she says, introducing her collie. “Could we get her a drink of water?”
Even Isaac can’t resist a cute dog. And once in the door, Clara’s more spiritual, more about “feeling” her “connection” to the universe, which is “too beautiful to just be random,” disarms him. Just a little.
“You can’t prove something based on a feeling.”
So even though they don’t see eye-to-eye about much, with her all moony about love and romantic connection and him “chemicals in the brain…serotonin,” they get to work and get to know each other.
Adams, of TV’s “Suits,” manages the distracted impatience hiding a big hurt that is Isaac’s MO with skill if not a lot of charisma.
Bellasario, of TV’s “Pretty Little Liars,” has more of that built into her character, a woman who collects unusual stones from all the strange and exotic places she’s been, a life lived on-the-fly — rootless.
As her past comes out, he picks up on the things she’s avoided because they were “not the right version of my life.” Isaac’s Big Secret is more predicable, but more slowly revealed.
There’s a lot of him turning his eyes away from the skies long enough to learn the right way to pronounce her name — “CLAH-ra.”
For her, there’s a steep learning curve.
“So, is that a planet there?”
The “cute” moments romances typically serve up are few and far between, but there’s one electric one when they sneak into the computer lab where they can dial up a telescope after hours. Clara’s charms may be obvious, but her language skills when dealing with a Chilean astronomer reluctant to give up telescope time isn’t.
Novice writer-director Sherman seems hellbent on making the anti-“Big Bang Theory,” never doing much with the romance or the dog, always turning back to “The Fermi Paradox,” “The Drake Equation” that “life should be common in our galaxy.”
The script seems most fascinated by the fact that there’s a new space telescope — TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) — that makes the hunt for new planets easier. And the urgency everybody here seems to feel about this hunt is the impending launch of the space telescope that could “prove” intelligent life exists on some of those planets, the James Webb Space Telescope.
But man, losing the love story — tossing it aside? That’s a fatal mistake, here. Bellasario is the most interesting character, the connection between the man of science and the woman of empathy (They both love Bob Dylan, at least.) may be a cliche, but it gives the picture heart and soul.
And without serving that promising part of the story more equally, without giving your most sympathetic actress her fair share of the story, the picture’s third act payoffs don’t pay off.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Troian Bellasario, Patrick J. Adams, Will Bowes, Jennifer Dale, Ennis Esmer
Credits: Written and directed by Akash Sherman. A Screen Media/Serendipity release.
Running time: 1:45