Timing is everything, and because of that, Stéphane Lafleur’s latest film Viking will likely draw comparisons with The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder’s HBO show about simulation and risk-aversion. That’s because, in its own fictional way, Viking mines the same essential concepts but for rather different purposes. While I don’t think it’s productive to argue “who wore it better” in this case, one thing is clear. By creating a fictional scenario in which individuals are trapped inside a simulacrum of reality, Lafleur avoids the ethical dilemmas that have made Fielder’s show such a hot topic within the mediasphere. If Viking is not as dangerous as The Rehearsal, it does what only art can do: provide a closed framework for philosophical investigation within an environment of relative safety.
[SPOILERS BEGIN HERE]
As Viking opens, we see David (Steve Laplante), a phys ed coach, undergoing a psychological evaluation, answering true or false to various questions, such as “I take my dreams seriously” and “I would like to partake in cannibalism.” We learn that David has passed the exam, and has been selected by the Canadian Space Administration to take part in a mission to Mars. He will be away from his girlfriend (Marie-Laurence Moreau) and his friends for nearly 2 ½ years, and he cannot divulge the details of his journey. But soon thereafter, we learn exactly what he’s been chosen to do.
You see, there is already a five-person team in space heading to Mars. But there have been procedural and, mostly, emotional conflicts among the crew. So, using a battery of tests, the Space Administration has selected five new individuals whose psych profiles match the ones of the actual astronauts. The new group will take part in an immersive simulation activity in the desert, performing facsimiles of the Mars teams’ jobs, so that those running the mission from Earth can figure out how to ease the burden of the men and women who are really in space.
Lafleur has taken a relatively silly conceit and imbued it with serious textual and meta-textual considerations. David must stop being “David” and become “John,” his Mars-bound “original.” Each of the participants is supposed to leave their real identities behind and become their assigned astronaut, regardless of discrepancies in gender, age, or actual psychological makeup. They are supposed to replicate the tensions and hostilities that exist among the Mars group, and are repeatedly told that the lives of the real team are riding on the success of this scientific Method acting.
Lafleur wisely leaves certain obvious tensions, such as racial and gender disparity, unremarked upon, in part because he wants us to see just how foolhardy this experiment really is. At the same time, Viking achieves real insights about the nature of simulation and its possible imbrication with what we perceive to be reality. In many ways, Viking most closely resembles Leigh Ledare’s underseen 2017 documentary The Task, wherein a group of participants go into a room to have intensive discussions about the act of discussion itself, its power dynamics, and the ways that, even in simulation, identities can become unstable. In one shot, Lafleur replicates a well-known scene from 2001, but then later apes an equally memorable scene from The Shining, suggesting that there may be more in common between these two Kubrick masterworks than meets the eye. If someone somewhere else has decided our every move, and free will is reduced to merely occupying a given role, then have we perhaps moved beyond the quaint notion of the Self? Lafleur cannot say for sure, but I’m glad we are having this conversation.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 3.