The old saying goes you shouldn’t marry anyone you can’t stand to be with for a three-day train ride. This is perhaps the basis for most of Richard Linklater’s Before series, tracing a couple from initial courtship to eventual marriage, from the fantasy of being young and taking a different path to settling into comfort. Kristian Mercado’s fluffy and sweet hang-out movie If You Were the Last initially opens in a living room before we pull back to reveal that our couple, Adam (Anthony Mackie) and Jane (Zoe Chao), are floating ruthlessly in space, on a self-sustaining ship that has lost all navigation and communication with NASA back on earth. Like an extreme version of the Before series, we enter mid-relationship, after the routines have been established 1,000 days into a solidly platonic relationship.
Adam and Jane are set in their schedules: completing the checklist, caring for the garden and animals, physical fitness, the impromptu dance-off, and just hanging out playing board games, watching movies, and wondering about when / if / at all they might be saved. Benson, a third astronaut, has shriveled into a corpse that keeps them sane, even when they start to argue.
Directed by Mercado, whose lively animated short Nuevo Rico won SXSW’s jury prize in 2021, this debut feature adopts a crafty handmade aesthetic not unlike Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep or Be Kind Rewind, or perhaps Bill Watterson’s Dave Made a Maze. With production design by Christopher Stull, the ship and especially its living area feels playfully retro; as does the visualization of space, which you’re more likely to confuse with Sesame Street than Michael Bay.
A film like this is really only as good as its leads, but Mackie and Chao are delightful companions to be stuck in space with. They pass the time by giving each other tattoos, watching movies, and science experiments––while Mackie’s Adam is fixated on creating a blueberry plant with THC, Chao’s Jane is more concerned with getting them back home by repairing the navigation system. Of course when two attractive people who might be stuck together in close quarters until death start thinking about that fact, it naturally leads to the conversation of having sex, setting off a two-week debate over the benefits of skin-to-skin contact. She, naturally, is afraid it’ll lead to feelings––they both have significant others waiting on earth.
Written during the height pandemic by Angela Bourassa, If You Were the Last is one of the few films that embrace the anxiety of the era without directly confronting it as subject. While it no doubt was a traumatic time for the world, for some there was something nice about reconnecting with members of one’s household while the world was on pause. For Adam and Jane, this is their reality––until the right cable is inserted into the right board and their navigation is back online.
If You Were the Last’s simple concept works precisely because Mercado doesn’t try scaling it into a prestige sci-fi drama. A college roommate used to joke that it was essential to have Finding Nemo in his DVD collection––when a woman he was interested came over, they inevitably would end up cuddling up and watching it on the couch. If You Were the Last essentially serves the same purpose: it is cinematic comfort food that has some emotional stakes and never overstays its welcome. Notwithstanding the occasional silly dialogue that Richard Linklater might never allow in a Before movie, If You Were the Last knows exactly what it’s doing.
If You Were the Last premiered at SXSW 2023.