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‘The First’: Sean Penn’s Mission to Mars on Hulu Debuts Gorgeous First Footage and Plot Details

At the ATX TV Festival, creator Beau Willimon gave audiences a glimpse at what he's been working on for Hulu, as well as what he hopes the future will look like.

Sean PennHaiti Takes Root Benefit Dinner and Auction, Arrivals, New York, USA - 05 May 2017

Sean Penn

Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

Beau Willimon is following up “House of Cards” with a series of the opposite intent.

“In a lot of ways, it’s a 180-degree departure from ‘House of Cards’ for me,” Willimon told ATX TV Festival attendees during a first look at his upcoming Hulu drama, “The First.” He said the Netflix series he developed asked, ‘When the worst of humanity assumes power, what does that look like?’ Well, we know. It’s happening before our very eyes and not just on television.”

“The First” takes on a separate point of view

“[It’s] a story I hope reflects a lot of the facets [of life] we’re all going through, whatever we’re trying to accomplish, whatever we’re striving for,” Willimon said, adding that he dares to hope it could inspire viewers. “There’s no guns in this. There’s no murder. […] I think we’re in a time now, seeing those sort of stories that inspire us to be the best version of ourselves, is necessary.”

Focusing on the first manned mission to Mars, Willimon said the events in “The First” could happen much sooner than some think.

“The only thing preventing us from doing it is popular will and funding,” he said. “When we’re talking about the future, we’re talking about the very near future.”

Set in the 2030s, the eight-episode first season is mainly set on Earth as the astronauts prepare for the journey to the red planet and NASA forms a partnership with a private company to support the trip.

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 9: House of Cards creator Beau Willimon speaks during the 'Truth & Fear & Dare' panel during the 2016 ATX Television Festival at the Stephen F. Austin InterContinental Hotel on June 9, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tammy Perez/Picturegroup)

Beau Willimon at the ATX TV Festival in 2016

Tammy Perez 2016/ATX

“It’s a story that takes place on Earth and [initially captures] how the astronauts get to the starting line,” he said. “We put a lot of focus on people’s families, their loved ones, and their own demons.”

Willimon said he didn’t see the series as science-fiction, but a human story that expands beyond Sean Penn’s lead character to the other astronauts and their loved ones. “It’s truly an ensemble piece,” he said.

To that end, he shared additional names in the cast, including Natascha McElhone, LisaGay Hamilton, Anna Jacoby-Heron (who plays Penn’s daughter), Rey Lucas, Keiko Agena, Oded Fehr, and Hannah Ware. Eagle-eyes “Leftovers” fans will notice none other than Bill Camp in the trailer.

The trailer shown exclusively to the ATX Festival audience (meaning it is not yet available online) showed various earth-bound images like twitching insects, lush trees, and Earth from close-orbit as Penn provided narration. The visuals are notably light and filled with space; Adam Stone is the series’ cinematographer, so imagine his work on Jeff Nichols’ films like “Loving” and “Midnight Special” crossed with “The Tree of Life.” (“I want to set up this dialectic between the lush, vibrant, teeming Earth and the cold, desolate look of Mars,” Willimon said.)

“The universe, it’s right there,” Penn says as flashes of the cast shoot across the screen. The final image focused on Penn looking up into the camera as his off-screen voice says, “Any time people venture into the unknown, there is a cost.”

No release date has been announced, but Willimon said “The First” will debut “later this year.”

The ATX TV Festival runs in Austin, TX from June 7 – 10. For more information, visit the official website.

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