The dangers and opportunities posed by space travel have remained an enticing prospect for cinemagoers ever since Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. A pioneering effort of science fiction cinema, Méliès’ work exemplifies the key concerns that drive our interest in space faring adventures – when will we take our place in the stars and what will we find when we get there? But the piece also touches upon a question that has largely been sidetracked by Hollywood until recently – what are the practical challenges involved? A recent crop of films, including Ridley Scott’s new release The Martian, famously starring Matt Damon, brings this question to the fore.
Hollywood has a rich tradition of space travel. Classic films like 1956’s Forbidden Planet, the Star Trek motion picture series launched in 1979 and 1980’s Flash Gordon offer us colourful, and fantastical adventures of heroic human crews on other planets. These works take a utopian approach, with mankind portrayed as valiant explorers searching the stars for new life and opportunity.
The flip side of Hollywood’s obsession with space takes a darker view. Films like Scott’s Alien in 1979, David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune in 1984 and Total Recall in 1990 imagine an altogether more dangerous side to space travel. In these works, humanity brings not only its optimism but its fears, corruption and violence to the stars. The entities and opportunities we meet are equally harsh and dangerous, from slathering extraterrestrial menaces to powerful corporations freed from earthly moral restraints.
The colourful and carefree abandon of the optimistic angle has its successors in films like 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, while the darker and threat of the dystopian approach has it’s echoes in 2005’s Serenity. Increasingly we are seeing Hollywood productions like 2009’s Moon, 2013’s Gravity and 2014’s Interstellar take a more realist and grounded approach to cosmic voyaging. The crew in Interstellar and our heroine in Gravity are threatened by psychological, environmental and cosmic phenomenon, not monstrous green men. Central to these films is hard work, human ingenuity and scientific solutions to their problems.
Méliès’ film ends with the phrase “Work Conquers All”, a sentiment shared with modern Hollywood depictions of space travel, perhaps most prominently in The Martian. But how long can this new form of optimism last in the face of modern political and social concerns? It remains to be seen if this newfound pragmatism about humanity’s space-faring potential will continue into future releases.