Hollywood and Space Exploration: The New Optimism

Something odd is happening in the world of American blockbuster filmmaking. Two years ago, the Oscars were swept by a film that presented itself as a simple, fundamentally realistic, and resoundingly positive – even triumphalist – take on contemporary manned space exploration. That film was Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The year after, Hollywood’s most ambitious celebrity filmmaker, Christopher Nolan, offered us Interstellar – a movie which suggests that the ultimate solutions to the Earth’s ecological and political problems might lie in a renewed and far-reaching initiative in space travel. And now, in 2015, The Martian teaches us that there is no problem – neither in space nor, by implication, on Earth – that cannot be solved by human ingenuity and intelligently applied scientific understanding. In all three films, we are invited to feel exhilarated by the sheer, glorious potential of human endeavour in space. Optimism about space exploration has soared back into fashion at the top of the film industry.

This is the same mood, in its essentials, that animated filmmakers in the 1960s to make movies pointing confidently towards an enlightened, magnificent future for the human race beyond this planet. It taps into classical scientific progressivism: rationalism will triumph over ignorance, and the light of science will lead humanity unstoppably forwards to better things. Foremost among those who promoted this belief in the ’60s was Arthur C. Clarke, and he was a creative contributor, of course, to the film that encapsulated this moment better than any other: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. Nowadays we tend to fixate so much on that film’s grander statements that we overlook a more superficial but extremely telling aspect of its production: 2001 is very realistic about how space travel actually works. Its spaceships are clinical, mechanical, almost ungainly; inside them there is no gravity, and outside them there is no sound. Kubrick’s ideas about our collective spiritual future, cosmic in scope though they may be, are firmly grounded in a plausible representation of the actual space travel of his era.

Those were heady days, as the success of the Apollo space shuttle program – culminating in the moon landings one year after Kubrick’s film – encouraged artists and commentators to feel that the scientific ambition of the human race was a thing to be celebrated as never before. The films inspired by NASA’s achievements were visionary creations, based in a belief that nothing, ultimately, would prove impossible, and revelling in the expectation that a new era was dawning in which we, as a species, would reach ever more surely for the stars.

And yet from the 1970s onwards, the vision so fearlessly celebrated in those films began to dim. The ’70s were cynical years in America, and if you have lost the faith that your country is fundamentally honest and committed to doing good (consider the great loss of democratic confidence surrounding the corruption of Nixon and the humiliation of Vietnam), it may well be hard to maintain the faith that the human race has a glorious future ahead of it beyond this troubled planet. The space program was dialled down – its funding cut, its goals scaled back – and films about space exploration began to reflect the shift in expectations. It is from the ’70s onwards that we begin to see examples of the gritty, noirish depiction of space travel that would become standard after Ridley Scott perfected it with Alien.

When films did buck this trend, they tended to be construed as homages to the heroic past, not forward-looking celebrations of a brighter future. In 1995, Apollo 13 dramatised the failure of the 1970 mission to the moon by demonstrating, in great detail, just how extraordinary an achievement the space shuttle program was. And yet the film is suffused with an inescapable sense that we are witnessing something that would no longer happen in contemporary, jaded America. In his review, seasoned critic Roger Ebert – who had been reviewing films non-stop since 1967 – deftly summed up the way expectations had altered over the previous three decades. “When I was a kid, they used to predict that by the year 2000, you’d be able to go to the moon. Nobody ever thought to predict that you’d be able to, but nobody would bother.”

So filmmakers lost interest in producing inspirational statements on our future in space. To be clear, I am talking here of films that present themselves as essentially realistic treatments of space travel, set in conceivable and not-too-distant futures. The full-blown science fantasy of franchises like Star Wars remained cheerfully positive about humans in space, but that is because they had almost no connection with actual, plausible space exploration, and thus did not reflect anybody’s ideas about the genuine nature of our likely futures. Whenever real space travel was addressed, mundanity and disillusionment prevailed, and Hollywood’s attitude tended not to be nearly so upbeat.

And yet now, in the last several years, things have suddenly changed. A resurgent optimism has overtaken Hollywood’s treatments of space travel. Watching Gravity or The Martian, it is hard to escape the sense that 2001: A Space Odyssey is echoing loudly in the contemporary film industry. These films not only make a serious effort to represent the authentic details of space travel as astronauts actually experience it, but also are resoundingly positive about the capacity of those astronauts to achieve truly great things. What stronger affirmation of human potential could there be than The Martian? This is a film in which the unbreakable human spirit, personified in Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut surviving alone on Mars, overcomes all odds by sheer persistence and by the application of scientific knowledge. In tone and message, it seems to come straight out of the ’60s. So what lies behind this sudden renewal of confidence? What has happened to make Hollywood get back in touch with the old inspirational attitude to space?

I think there are two possible answers, and your choice between them will depend on your own personal balance between optimism and cynicism. One is that this is merely a zestful kick of nostalgia. After all, in 2011 Obama finally cancelled NASA’s space shuttle program, and the prospect of sending human beings to other planets, rather than mere robots, seemed to be properly and officially cut off. Perhaps this has jolted us at long last into a real appreciation of how much beauty and glory we stand to lose by abandoning our grandest visions for space exploration. Perhaps filmmakers are emphasising the inspirational power of space travel because they are desperately aware, deep down, that these visions are now unlikely ever to be realised in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, maybe they are aware of something else as well. Maybe they have noticed that the internet-based geek culture that has steadily matured over the past ten years or so – the culture that is now producing our practicing scientists, our campaigners for science, our technological visionaries – takes space exploration very, very seriously. Perhaps the creation of films like The Martian springs from the same deep, genuine belief that we have a future in space that led so many people to stay up all night downloading photos beamed back to us from Mars by the Curiosity rover. Obama may have taken a pragmatic decision against it, but anyone who cares to look closely might see that Americans are becoming genuinely enthusiastic about space exploration once again. It may be hoped that our newly optimistic films on the topic will herald a resurgence in initiatives beyond Hollywood, and beyond the bounds of the cinema.

This article originally appeared in The Oxford Student on 27 November 2015.

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