When it comes to space, cinema’s teachings are all over the place. Cinema has been obsessed with space since the Méliès brothers first shot a rocket into the moon’s eye in 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, and it continues to send actors and characters back there. But what has cinema taught us about space? That is a tricky question, as there are four distinct kinds of space movie and each seems to teach a different thing.
The first is the space opera. Movies like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Serenity, and TV shows like Firefly and Doctor Who, teach us that space is a cool place full of alien planets, crazy technology, and adventure. They show us a world in which, if we’re lucky, we could end up in a crew of a spaceship with a rag tag bunch of characters, each with their own stories and pasts. They ignore science to focus on the wonderment of living and adventuring out there among the stars.
The second is the space nightmare. The Alien franchise, Jason X, Event Horizon, and Apollo 18 all posit a version of space in which, if you were to visit, you would find yourself being brutally space-murdered by aliens, unfrozen serial killers, or Sam Neill. Much like the space opera, these movies still go for fiction over science, and entertainment over education.
Which brings us to the third type: the science-fact space movie presents a version of space in which the science is accurate. Unfortunately, because space is scary as hell, these movies end up being closer to space nightmares than space operas. Apollo 13, Gravity, The Martian, The Right Stuff, Space Cowboys, and Countdown are all movies that teach the complete opposite of Star Wars when it comes to space travel. Gone are the grandiose spaceships with plenty of room to walk around, flirt with princesses, and play space chess. In their place, we find dehydrated food, cramped spaces, and questions about how to use the toilets.
Finally, there is the existential, mind-fuck of a space movie. This is the kind of movie that will begin like a science fact space movie and then the next minute, the main character will have turned into a giant baby. There is something about space that fosters this kind of movie. Half or three quarters will be legitimately plotted science fiction, replete with action beats, dialogue, and a strong sense of reality, and then the final part will, depending on your preference, transcend into something beautiful and lyrical, or disappear up its own arse.
The two biggest and most notable users and offenders of this trope are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar. Both of these movies teach us that space is a grand adventure, but also that space is crazy dangerous. They teach us that a good crew is paramount, and never to trust computers or Matt Damon. And finally, they teach us that because space is so vast and so unknown it cannot be contained in our imaginations. That much colourless emptiness can’t simply be filled with nothing. We know the world inside and out.
In our heart of hearts, we know there is no such thing as God, or luck, or time travel, or second chances down here on the ground, but maybe out there, among the endless stars and the uncharted infinite, there is a way that we could start again and do things better. Provided we don’t run afoul of something on the long list of things space can use to brutally kill us.