“If You Were the Last” officially marks lead star Zoë Chao’s Hollywood takeover. After stealing scenes in Netflix’s return-to-form rom-com “Your Place or Mine” and being a welcome addition to “Party Down” Season 3, Chao leads the indie sci-fi romantic comedy opposite Anthony Mackie. The two leads’ already formidable charisma goes off the charts when they are put side by side. The chemistry? It’s out of this world.
Chao plays astronaut captain Jane, who is trapped in an adrift spaceship with her lieutenant, scientist Adam (Mackie). Three years into a NASA mission, and Jane and Adam are lost, alone with each other, and counting down the days until their inevitable starvation. The film is set in the not-so-distant future where Matt Damon is still around (and still a go-to celebrity to name check), adding a charming familiarity to a film still rooted in the present. The Wes-Anderson-meets-West-Elm mid-century modern set pieces and whimsical practical effects to show the ship flying by Saturn and Jupiter doesn’t make the quirky indie film quaint, it makes it even more inventive.
Jane is determined to save them, while Adam is just fine leaning into fate. Still, both astronauts are quite chipper, knowing they’re going to die soon but that they’re doing it on their terms. A cute “Shit Got Real!” day is marked on the calendar when they both realized they were stranded. Jane keeps trying to repair the ship and Adam keeps attempting to successfully breed blueberries and marijuana onboard (it’s a thing). They have a goat for milk, two chickens for fresh eggs, and their own mini Garden of Eden in a greenhouse. Jane is just fine listening to her cassette tapes and using her Walkman device during the day, so long as she can convince Adam to watch “Die Hard” over “Casablanca” in their nightly movie ritual.
The only issue? Well, sex.
As “When Harry Met Sally” taught us, heterosexual men and women can never really just be friends without acknowledging the elephant in the room. And for “If You Were the Last,” that elephant comes in the form of Jane stepping in Adam’s “milky” output (you get it).
It’s only after more than 1,000 days onboard that Adam proposes exploring a more-than-friends relationship with Jane. Adam states that for him, sex is a stress-reliever. He tries to convince Jane by promising “banging” him will be “void of emotion,” but Jane can’t help but list the reasons why it makes no sense to change their dynamic (to note, she has already built multiple vibrators out of construction drills). For one, they’re both married to other people, respectively played by Natalie Morales and Geoff Stults. But in space, do their wedding bands really matter?
Sure, “If You Were the Last” could easily be labeled a sex comedy (it’s not) or a sci-fi movie (aside from Jane and Adam watching “Alien,” not really). It’s firmly a rom-com, and that’s because Mackie and Chao give us the best time grooving, laughing, and dancing in a pandemic lockdown-type situation. The easiest allegory would be that quarantine either pushes people apart or drives them closer together, and sometimes distance really doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Isn’t watching movies together in matching sweatshirts a marriage of sorts already?
Everything from “space babies” to “Avenue 5”-esque ways to get back to Earth are discussed and dissected in goofy, sometimes wacky, but always endearing ways. Include an “It Happened One Night” slow-burn, set against the backdrop of the galaxy just through their window, and we have a refreshing rom-com worthy of an immediate binge.
It’s only when Adam and Jane are presented with a distinct choice — travel back to Earth and out of their budding romance, or stay together and wait it out — do they consummate their flirtations. As Jane and Adam make the three week-long journey back to the ground, they fall for each other and wonder what the real world will be like upon their return.
They promise to still be best friends on Earth no matter what, and it’s only when Chao and Mackie are not the only stars present onscreen does the well-paced film falter in the third act. That’s not a dig at the other players in this cast, it’s just that Chao and Mackie are that great together.
Mackie, the new Captain America of the MCU, flexes his ability to balance indies and make us hope “If You Were the Last” isn’t his last smaller-budget project once the next Marvel phase ramps up. Mackie fully displays his range as Adam, who is always enthralled and engaged with Jane.
But this is Chao’s film through and through. During an emotional scene where Jane’s tape breaks, Chao immediately switches from dancing fun to crumbling under the weight of existential dread. Mackie singing Lionel Ritchie isn’t just a reprieve, it’s a lifeline and Chao switches yet again, this time into a hopeful gear, deepening the onscreen connection with Mackie all in the same scene.
“If You Were the Last” was written by Angela Bourassa, whose script was deemed among 2020’s best un-produced screenplays on The Black List, and for good reason. Director Kristian Mercado masterfully spotlights Bourassa, Mackie, and Chao’s talents in his feature film debut, and it’s like a match made in heaven, or space itself.
“If You Were the Last” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.