Kubrick to Scott: Relevancy and Realism in Cinematic Science Fiction
By the time 2001: A Space Odyssey arrived, everything had changed.
Behind the Iron Curtain the Soviets launched their own science fiction boom, one far more realistic and adult-oriented than ours.
Pavel Klushantsev’s 1958 documentary, Doroga k zvezdam (Road to the Stars), strongly influenced Kubrick. It starts with a brief history lesson, then moves into the future with predictions of rockets and space stations, culminating in the first moon landing.
Klushantsev’s film inspired a series of realistic Soviet and Warsaw Bloc science fiction films, including his own Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms) in 1962. Many of these—or at least their special effects sequences—would eventually appear in the West.
In the U.S., Chesley Bonestell’s influence had faded and American science fiction started looking more like our space program, thanks in part to all the borrowed Apollo footage.
But Stanley Kubrick did set a new standard: as Lang and Pal had done before him, he brought in scientists and experts to shape his vision of outer space. The future no longer belonged to Bonestell. Instead, it looked like the publicity art Martin Marietta or Lockheed Martin produced for their latest NASA projects. Their cool, impersonal sixties aesthetic was a perfect match for Kubrick’s style and the end result looked like a reasonable extrapolation from our current hardware.
When you boil away the sheer, awe-inspiring wonder of the film, 2001 was yet another alien encounter, not far removed from schlock like Mission Mars. Few of these post-Apollo films featured stories as solidly realistic as their hardware. While Roger Altman’s Countdown dealt intelligently with character against a plausible—if reckless—moon landing scenario, and Marooned with disaster and rescue attempts in space, another movie took us to a mirror image Earth on the far side of the sun (Doppleganger). Additionally, Moon Zero Two presented the first space Western, complete with a heroine named Clementine.
Bruce Dern tries to save the trees (in outer space) in Silent Running, the first Mars mission turns into a paranoid conspiracy thriller (Capricorn One), and yet another kid became a Stowaway to the Moon in a 1975 TV movie. Naturally, he manages to save the mission. How he survives a twenty-three G liftoff without a form-fitting couch is left unexplained.
Space flight was so routine that it appeared in everything from a Don Knotts comedy (The Reluctant Astronaut) to I Dream of Jeannie. By 1979, it had fallen so far that a Saturn V got crammed into Disney’s version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
With the arrival of Star Wars and Alien, even these movies slowed to a trickle. A handful of kids accidentally launched themselves into orbit in Space Camp, Walter Koenig fought alien monstrosities with the shuttle and an Apollo rocket in Moon Trap, we had to rescue a hypersonic jet that accidentally went into orbit in ABC’s Starflight One and the British shuttle Churchill finds alien vampires lurking in the tail of Halley’s comet (Lifeforce).
Perhaps 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) marked the high point, although without Kubrick it proved mostly routine. And Toho‘s Sayonara Jupiter, while set further in the future, had a solid 2001-on-a-more-massive-scale vibe that is at odds with its ray gun battles and J-Pop theme song.
That changed briefly in the late nineties, thanks, one suspects, to the success of Apollo 13 (1995). Or it might have been Michael Bay’s bombastic killer asteroid film, Armageddon (1998). For a few years, more or less realistic portrayals of space flight returned to the theaters, amid a sudden burst of interest in Mars.
NASA had launched a volley of probes starting with the unsuccessful Mars Observer in 1992. While several other embarrassing failures followed, by the end of the millennium they had a string of orbiters, landers, and rovers sending back new information.
There was a lot of talk, highly speculative plans and dramatic initiatives for a manned mission but NASA couldn’t convince Congress to fund them. Nothing ever went beyond the concept stage.
Ironically, a Disney comedy, RocketMan (1997), was first to Mars, although it paid little attention to the technical details of the flight. But in 2000, two major films gave us a glimpse of something closer to the real Mars.
Renowned director Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars was first, with a ship, which looks look like something NASA might actually have had on their drawing boards (although the big, rotating walking track probably came from 2001).
The movie’s realism, unfortunately, ran aground when it came to DNA.
On the trip out, one of the characters builds a model of human DNA out of M&Ms. As our DNA contains about three billion base pairs that would take about six thousand tons of candy. Which is a lot of extra weight to haul along on an interplanetary flight. Even worse, an important plot point revolves around the “fact” that all living things on Earth have the same DNA. It moves even further from realism at the end, when one of the crew leaves in an alien spacecraft millions of years old.
Red Planet is set a little further in the future. This time, the explorers went to Mars, looking for a solution to the Earth’s serious environmental problems (which makes a lot more sense than gold!).
However, after a promising start, their robot accidentally switches into lethal killer military mode (why does every movie robot have that setting?) and starts hunting the crew. And if that wasn’t enough, they’re attacked by fire-starting alien bugs.
The other notable film of the cycle, John Carpenter’s The Ghosts of Mars (2001) made little pretense of accuracy, choosing instead to portray a partly terraformed and heavily settled Mars.
And there wasn’t a spacesuit to be seen.
A few other reasonably accurate space films got made in that brief surge—one notes Escape from Mars (1999) which offered a convincing trip on a TV budget, and Clint Eastwood’s homage to older actors, Space Cowboys (2000). Then there’s the Spanish film Stranded (2001) which ends with a hidden pocket of air, as fortuitous as the one that Fritz Lang’s explorers found, and, of course, the usual remnants of a dead civilization.
However, none of them did well in the theater, and the Mars fad faded quickly.
It wasn’t just realistic space films that faded from sight, but science fiction films in general. The Lord of the Rings’ success sent the studios scrambling after fantasy properties, sidelining science fiction except for a few odd films such as Danny Boyle’s brilliant but flawed Sunshine (2007). Its deep space mission was based on a radical scientific theory, which for some reason is never discussed in the film, but it descends into a routine slasher film.
However, by 2009, science fiction was back. Leading this sudden surge of new films was a remarkable one-man-show of a movie with Sam Rockwell playing against Sam Rockwell, as a man who discovers that he isn’t alone on the Moon.
Duncan Jones set these extraordinary events against a painstakingly detailed base, complete with rovers, mechanized mining systems, and a HAL-like AI controlling it all.
Several interesting films followed. Geoff Marslett made Mars (2010), a rotoscoped film similar in style to A Scanner Darkly. It probably was the first Romantic Comedy set against a realistic trip to the red planet. William Eubank, with a half-million dollar budget, created an international space station in his driveway (it seems almost rude to point out that it had full gravity) to film Love (2011), a strange arthouse astronaut film (once described as a full-length version of the 2001 stargate sequence) made as a companion piece to the Angels and Airwaves album of the same name. And the found-footage horror boom made it all the way to the moon in Apollo 18, where a lovingly recreated Apollo mission meets rock monsters.
2012 brought Astronaut: The Last Push: where an accident leaves an astronaut sent to study newly discovered life on Europa alone, struggling to survive and get back to Earth. Ironically, most of this tense film takes place in a single tiny compartment—like Buried, but with more CGI.
But something had changed. Realistic space films came of age in 2013.
Admittedly, The Last Days on Mars was somewhat of a holdout, creating an entirely credible Mars mission for yet another zombie movie.
But Europa Report, while made on a modest budget, didn’t just look like a NASA mission: its footage looked like that produced by NASA.
It would be tempting to dismiss it as yet another found footage film, but it is more serious than most, matching what we see to the limited number of cameras aboard the ship. We only get glimpses of its exterior, for example, until there’s a feed from the astronauts trying to repair it—and even then, a full length view only comes as one of them drifts helplessly into space.
One suspects that the film’s non-linear plot may be there to give it some Indie cred. The choice to start with the landing on Europa, then gradually flash back to the voyage does increase the suspense as it thrusts us immediately into the mysterious events on the Jovian moon.
And then, the final instant of the film’s “lost” footage, reveals Europa Report’s dark secret: it is a Creature Feature!
Somehow, after an hour and a half of trying to make the dangers of exploration interesting again, it seems like a step backwards.
But Gravity more than made up for that.
Gravity came with a considerable amount of fanfare, a hefty budget, and two A-list stars. While its writer and director, Alfonso Cuarón, had previously made one science fiction movie, Children of Men, it centered not on dazzling effects, but on story and character.
Cuarón brought that same sensibility to a far more sensational film, creating not merely another disaster movie in space but the story of a lonely woman wrapped up in her work who must not only survive, but must overcome her own self.
Some 80% of the film is computer generated yet it avoids the unreality of Avatar, creating a gritty vision of working in space, weightlessness, and the basic hardware of spaceflight. It is hard to believe that in much of the film the only parts actually filmed were the faces of the stars.
While “disaster in space” is almost a cliché, Gravity is relentless, piling on danger after danger, with most of them anchored in the physics of spaceflight. Cuarón cheats in a few places for the sake of his story yet the film has a solid sense of reality few science fiction films have equaled. One might fault it for portraying a shuttle mission long after its retirement or a full scale Chinese station which is still some years away, but that merely reflects how long it took Cuarón to find backing for a film that couldn‘t have been made at the time he wrote it.
Christopher Nolan followed a year later with Interstellar, his take on the sort of high-concept science fiction film represented by 2001.
The Earth is dying. The last remnant of our space program (now seen as a huge distraction from our real problems), has found a mysterious, apparently intelligently created wormhole opening onto a series of planets near a massive black hole. But are any of them habitable?
These stock science fiction staples look radically different from any previous screen version: the wormhole appears as a sphere, the black hole a dramatic ringed object which fills the sky in the new solar system. Nolan based them on the latest research, and uses the time distortion caused by the black hole’s gravity as one of the major difficulties facing their mission, as years speed by in minutes.
He chose to anchor his story not in the mission itself, but in the pilot and his daughter. This gives the film a dramatic strength that helps carry the more extreme elements of its ending: yet another “stargate” sequence and the revelation that the mission has been guided by a mysterious outside power who may be a far-future us.
While the film’s overall emphasis on theoretical physics and believable technology is admirable, Nolan does seem to have ignored one minor detail: a black hole the size of “Gargantua” should have been spewing out enough X-rays to fry them all alive.
Both films portray a castaway struggling to survive on Mars—and both claim to be scientifically accurate. One might almost think that The Martian was a fiftieth anniversary remake. But fifty years do make a big difference.
In the earlier film, made a year before Mariner 4 returned the first detailed images of the red planet, Commander “Kit” Draper can breathe the thin air, but needs occasional lungsful of oxygen, which he produces by heating rocks. He also finds edible plants and water underground, and, of course, flying saucers and an escaped alien slave he names “Friday.”
While the oxygen rocks are often mocked, deposits of such minerals have been found on the moon. One doubts, though, that freeing their oxygen would be so simple. At the time, Mars’ atmosphere was often compared to that at the top of the Himalayas, but now we know that the pressure is so low that liquid water is extremely unlikely, except, perhaps, at depths Kit would find hard to reach in a cave. Where the fire storm and flying balls of fire came from is harder to explain.
In 2011, Andy Weir serialized a realistic science fiction novel based on every scrap of information he could find about Mars. The adventures of stranded astronaut Mark Watney proved so popular as an ebook that he sold it to a major publisher.
Ridley Scott’s film version is easily the most accurate screen portrayal of Mars to date. He seems to have resisted the Hollywood urge to “improve” the story and the plot is virtually identical to the novel.
While he eschewed the more-or-less non-stop action of Gravity (except in the film’s somewhat less convincing finale in which Mark goes into space in a rocket “convertible”), he emphasizes the step-by-step process Mark uses to deal with his challenges. The Martian demonstrates that you don’t need aliens, lost civilizations, or a pet monkey to make an interesting movie about Mars. The real dangers, and the incredible difficulty of providing even the minimum needed to survive in such a hostile world, are more than enough. It is rare, however, for Hollywood to recognize that, even though they made a lot of money on true stories like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff.
A number of similar films are now in production, although one wonders how many of them will be as accurate.
With more and more of our efforts being outsourced to private contractors will they still look like space missions? And how will this shape the way Hollywood imagines the future?
Realism is always difficult to achieve—and in many respects, it is more of a question of style, of convincing the audience that it is real. Predicting the future has always been difficult and it is hard to guess which current trends will be important. The wild paint scheme and unusual windows of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne does leave one wondering what a space program outsourced to private contractors might look like—and how it will shape the way Hollywood imagines the future.
We now have the technology to put almost anything on the screen. The real question is, will realistic space flight be sucked into the ever more extravagant (and ridiculous) CGI-driven world of the action film? Or once again loaded down with all the familiar clichés, from aliens to stowaways to saboteurs?
It has always been the desire to make these films “interesting” which cluttered many of them with absurdities. And yet, the possibility of telling compelling stories without familiar tropes has always been there. It just takes a lot more work—and an industry willing to back them.
Which is the real problem.