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Modern Astronaut Movies: Heading in the Right Direction

As NASA once again gears up its PR machine, Elon Musk’s Space-X continues to wow us with its re-usable rockets, and the India Space Research Organization (ISRO) and China National Space Administration (CNSA) are poised to stake their claims on lunar real estate, the dawn of a new space age is just around the corner. It’s no coincidence that movie industries are stoking interest in, and profiting from, the astronaut experience.

Hollywood, as ever, has led the charge, but the calibre of filmmaking, not to mention an uncharacteristic adherence to the laws of physics, has produced a shockingly good crop of sci-fi movies. Gravity (2013) strove to deliver the most immersive space experience ever put on film, and achieved it (especially the 3D version). Then Interstellar (2014) tried to blend 2001: A Space Odyssey with Spielbergian emotion and, apart from a couple of bum notes later in the story, gave us an enthralling ride. The following year, The Martian (2015) put a likeable human face on space exploration, and made science not only accessible, but fun. It’s a superb film, adapted from an excellent novel by Andy Weir.

Character-driven sci-fi in the likes of Passengers (2016) and Ad Astra (2019) presented us with moral dilemmas to chew on as we contemplated the stars. The latter featured an astronaut with deep-rooted abandonment issues, while First Man (2018) the previous year showed us a grieving, withdrawn Neil Armstrong struggling to overcome the loss of his child even as he made his historic moon landing. In Gravity, too, Sandra Bullock is haunted by the loss of her daughter. As space agencies ready their respective missions to the moon and Mars, filmmakers are going to great lengths to portray astronauts as complex, human, and noble.

Two astronaut films I haven’t seen yet appear to be similarly intimate. High Life (2018) and Proxima (2019) are independent movies by female filmmakers, and spotlight personal relationships over sci-fi spectacle. Then there’s Hilary Swank’s Netflix series, Away, and Anna Kendrick in Stowaway: character-driven space fare fronted by female characters as astronauts. Diversity and equality are driving NASA’s recruitment push, and that’s being reflected on screen as well. Gene Rodenberry (Star Trek) did more than anyone to make space exploration an inclusive endeavour, and contemporary space movies have finally caught up.

Sci-fi horror films continue to riff on the Alien (1979) series. But while legacy entries like Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) disappointed on far-flung worlds, a cheeky imitator in Earth orbit, Life (2017), nailed the fundamentals of Ridley Scott’s original classic and provided plenty of gut-wrenching suspense. Russia tried its hand at the formula with Sputnik (2020), and even threw in a female protagonist for good measure.

That country’s other recent forays into science fiction have been, like Hollywood’s, astronaut-centric with a focus on plausible science and overcoming disaster. Salyut 7 (2017) and The Spacewalker (2017) were both very popular films in Russia. In 2019, China launched its own sci-fi epic, The Wandering Earth, about a mission to find a new home world after our sun dies out. Its ambitious scope and jingoistic elements are perfectly in line with China’s real-life space race propaganda.

When the new space race gathers pace, it will be fascinating to see how movie depictions of the astronaut experience evolve. How much will “woke” identity politics pollute Hollywood’s output? Ad Astra’s “toxic masculinity” angle has been charged with that, but I thought it fit the themes and the characters just fine. It wasn’t shoehorned in, like so much progressive nonsense is these days. Will scientific advisors play a bigger role in sci-fi movies? Contemporary and retro space films are definitely trying harder to embrace plausible physics, even if they do cut corners here and there. But ultimately, it’s the spirit of space exploration itself that movies are going to capture, shape or comment on as we take our next steps out into the cosmos.

Personally, I’d like to see more optimistic space films like The Martian. Our future lies in the stars, and we should at least strive to imagine the best of ourselves making the journey. We’ll always have to take our psychological baggage with us, but God knows, there’s enough to depress us here on Earth. I for one like to smile when I look up and wonder.

Your move, Hollywood.


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