When I was a kid, my brother left his university astronomy textbook at my parents’ house one summer break. I was still in primary school, but I was determined to read it – and inspired, I assembled a space museum in a storage space attached to our garage, with drawings and facts about the planets pasted to the walls. Admission was ten cents, and the only visitors were my parents who swung by one time each. In the ongoing quiet periods during opening hours, I sat in the room and (tried to) read as much as I could about space.
But when I first watched the movie Apollo 13, the time available to me to man my space museum became very limited: I watched the movie nearly every single day. The film helped give my ambitions a realistic grounding: even if humans were fundamentally flawed by their minuscule lifespans and lack of light-speed spacecraft…it was possible to go to space. It was a job, a thing people did for a living when they grew up. The perils dramatised in Apollo 13 hardly had a dissuading effect on my dreams. Instead, getting blasted off to space on what was essentially the top end of a massive stick of dynamite, paired with the psychological terror of potentially never returning home, all for the sake of science and curiosity, were precisely the kind of stakes I wanted to have in my life.
In the end, I struggled to stick with my brother’s textbook, especially once it introduced modern science (apparently college-level calculus, physics and chemistry were requirements for the course). I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but those summer days consumed by space in the back room behind the garage, as exciting as they sometimes were, were also my first days of existential depression: I was learning the immensity of the universe, and realising that not all of my questions about it could be answered. and probably never even would be answered in my lifetime. One could never know all that there was to know.
Soon, we’re told, humanity will be leaving Earth – at least more routinely, if not permanently. This charge is led by the astropreneurs, of which Elon Musk is the most prominent: he imagines humans colonising Mars by the 2060s. Plenty of steps performed in quick succession over the next half a century would be required to get us there. Manned and unmanned trips into space would become increasingly common. Some trips would be tests, some scientific, some cargo transport, some marketing stunts (such as the Japanese billionaire who is paying for a trip around the moon for himself and an entourage of ‘artists’).
Here and now – as we little upright beings supposedly straddle life on Earth and life in space, preparing an adventure we’ve been dreaming about for centuries, if not millennia – Hollywood has taken it upon itself to offer us a feel for what it might all be about. The modern, realist space movie is like a little taster for the drama, the importance, the massive bigness of where we’re heading.
The first half of the last decade saw the floodgates open. First came Gravity, and then there was Interstellar, and The Martian. I was stoked. Space! Those three movies were all massive blockbusters and critical favourites; each was nominated for at least five Academy Awards. Gravity won seven.
The modern, realist space movie is like a little taster for the drama, the importance, the massive bigness of where we’re heading.
Imaginations, though, both the collective and the personal, are like muscles: they can atrophy. Back then, a whole five-ish years ago, I felt lucky, living in a wondrous time of CGI and ultra-high definition, when I could pretty much see the universe for the low, low price of a movie ticket.
The fact that I could get bored by space movies struck me by surprise, really. I wasn’t sure that was possible. What went wrong? What was this feeling of dread I had each time another space movie came out? I felt like I was supposed to be excited (space!) but I just couldn’t muster up the energy. Was it me? Was I getting old and uncool, and consigning space to the realm of useless fantasy? Or was it something else?
Culturally, we have always enjoyed stories set in space, and space movies of course aren’t new, but there’s something different about the recent films. The classic space-based science fiction movies (such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris) are concerned with scientific accuracy and the consequences of technological innovation. Action-fantasy space films (Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar) are set in a time and place unrecognisable to the here and now, and take advantage of the infinity of the cosmos to imagine all sorts of peculiar permutations of intelligent life. There also exist historical space movies (Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, First Man), which invariably take place half a century ago – because that’s when the entirety of human space travel history has actually occurred. And then, somewhat related are the alien invasion movies (E.T., Independence Day, Arrival) in which the outside comes in: these movies necessarily take place not in space but on here on Earth, and envision the ultimate clash of us versus them.
The pseudo-realistic space movies of the past decade are different. They are carving out their own subgenre: all of the films take place in the recognisable near future and aim to be not accurate but realistic; they hardly question scientific and technological progress, and accept that space travel will soon become a common pastime. They could also be categorised as ‘dramas’ set in space, and they enjoy broad appeal.
Of course, it’s normal for pop culture to overdo things (see: true-crime podcasts, 80s nostalgia, superheroes, cronuts). But I went back and watched space movies from the past six or seven years, and what struck me was just how boring and self-important they were. Even the ‘classics’: in Gravity, Sandra Bullock (who for some reason has no astronaut training) gets stuck in space, struggles with the will to go on, but is saved by a hallucination of George Clooney. In Interstellar, an ageing Matthew McConaughey leaves his children behind because a ‘more important’ job has come up. The Martian aged the most poorly; it includes the line: ‘In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this’.
The problem might be that these movies are not meant to be watched on a laptop in bed, or not even on a living room television. They exist to be seen in a darkened theatre with a properly set up surround sound system, because these movies apparently are not meant to be watched, but experienced. There’s hardly any difference (I assume) between actually going to space and a space movie in IMAX 3D – the view taking up your entire periphery, the soundtrack making your heart vibrate and your eardrums blow, and the 3D being kind of nauseating. It makes sense then, that because movies are only shown in theatres for a short period of time, a new one must show up at least once a year. That way you can always get your fix.
Watching space movies from the past six or seven years, what struck me was just how boring and self-important they were.
But on the other hand, as we conclude our global celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it’s hard not to feel a little space fatigue. Ignoring the fact that Apollo 11 was fundamentally an aggressive display of American militaristic might against the Soviet Union, the moon landing was a huge feat, to be sure: an American president publicly announced a crazy goal, and a government agency delivered on that goal, successfully landing two human beings and a 30 kilogram computer on the moon within ten years. As impressive as that is, though, it’s hard not to feel like human achievement peaked in 1969. Even with all the billionaire astropreneurs’ lofty promises of commonplace space travel just around the corner, what have we actually done lately?
David Graeber has an answer for this paradox in his essay about the illusion of modern technological progress, arguing that neoliberal capitalism has a fundamental need to maintain the status quo. This maintenance involves, among other things, convincing us ‘that technological progress is indeed continuing, that we do live in a world of wonders, but that those wonders take the form of modest improvements (the latest iPhone! ), [and rumours] of inventions about to happen (‘I hear they are going to have flying cars pretty soon’)’. As much as Martian colonies are supposedly imminent, for the majority of people, the closest we might ever get to space is seeing a movie in IMAX, where the screen is so big and the speakers so loud, that it can feel like you’re really blasting off into space trussed to a giant subwoofer.
Through this lens, space movies aren’t just boring, but potentially nefarious. Because they’re all set about fifty years from now, they do not confront us with the long-term inadequacies of humankind, as harder sci-fi does, but just as potential versions of the not-too-distant future. There might be car chases on the Moon, astronauts might be left behind on unexplored planets, maybe we’ll have a base orbiting Neptune, pillows on commercial Moon flights might cost $125. The movies make the near future seem exciting and dramatic, though they accept that commercial flights will always be a pain the arse. The failure of our collective imagination is well-encompassed by the fact that we cannot envisage a future in which commercial flights are not a pain in the arse; neoliberal values are accepted implicitly.
Yet, none of these films actually project our very real and pressing global problems fifty years forward. In Gravity, a Russian missile strike puts spacewalkers’ lives in danger – but you’d be forgiven for forgetting this immediately as it’s given so little airtime. Ad Astra imagines our biggest problem in fifty years not as a too-hot Earth, but power surges caused by rogue astronauts. By far, Interstellar is the most damaging culprit; at face value, it seems to be the only film that takes climate change seriously, but by the end, it turns out that we’ve been solving the problem all along! Future humans were gracious enough to put a wormhole just next to Saturn, both saving the present generation and absolving it of any responsibility. In the time between Matthew McConaughey’s ejection from the tesseract and his awakening in a high-end hospital on a space habitat orbiting Saturn, humanity has undergone a magical transformation from fundamentally self-destructive beings, to a species sufficiently enlightened to handle travel through spacetime. I’m desperate to know: what changed?
We are like privileged teens, trashing our home and assuming the cleaners will take care of it. Are we to expect we’ll just act better in the next house?
These movies all take the human move towards space as a given, an inevitable part of natural progress. Yet, while we are not technologically capable of this move yet, the truth is that we are even less morally prepared to do so.
We have hardly started to reconcile the actions of the last set of ‘adventurers’ who set sail into ‘unknown’ territories centuries ago. If we are only now beginning to acknowledge the serious and irreversible consequences of that ‘age of exploration’, can we firmly say that we have learned from our mistakes? We have done nothing to ensure that we do not ignorantly repeat tragedy, so how can we have any confidence in the next set of ‘pioneers’ and their motives?
We also continue to argue about whether humans have any effect on Earth and whether we should bother doing anything about it, while the past decade was the hottest on record and the Earth is literally burning. We are like privileged teens, so very intent on trashing our home and assuming the cleaners will just take care of it. Are we to expect that we’ll just act better in the next house? If this is how we behave here on Earth, on the very planet that made us, how might we live on a planet that will be so much less hospitable to us in return?
Thinking about these questions is difficult, and often depressing. It’s much easier to gloss over them and imagine a fun future instead, like living in a space pod on Mars. But I’m not sure we deserve such fantasies. It might be more prudent to imagine a better life on Earth before we imagine life anywhere else.