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How space movies shaped our idea of the universe

For over half a century, the way space has been portrayed on celluloid has strongly influenced our ideas of the universe

Staring at the sun in ‘Sunshine’.
Staring at the sun in ‘Sunshine’.

There’s a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, but we have not been able to see it yet. There’s probably a gigantic ghost planet beyond Pluto, but we haven’t seen that either. Thanks to the Kepler telescope, we know of planets, many light years away, which might be like earth, but with a sky that is, say, green. But we haven’t seen those either. You might have come across gorgeous images of the Horsehead Nebula on the Nasa website—those strange looking, protean, cosmic gases, shot through with gorgeous stars twinkling like diamonds—that are the stuff that space dreams are made of. But alas, they are only artists’ impressions, based on much less glamorous images shot by high-powered telescopes.

Let’s face it, our nascent, barely-there space-faring civilization hasn’t seen much beyond our immediate solar neighbourhood. But we do know what hypothetical worlds, and stars many times the size of our familiar yellow bright ball of fire, or inter-dimensional wormholes look like. And for that, we have celluloid to thank.

The Black hole Gargantua in ‘Interstellar’.

Until astronomers manage to get a look at Sagittarius A*, that lurks like the proverbial beast in its lair, 25,640 light years away in the centre of our spiral galaxy, our only visual understanding of a black hole will remain based on the one we saw in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). That terrifying, exalted, poetic, gigantic sphere of darkness, called Gargantua, ringed around and cut across by swathes of light, into which the astronaut Cooper plunges, was an image that could only be created in Hollywood. However, it was as scientifically accurate as possible, so we might as well assume that it is what black holes look like. Over the past 50 years, the movies have given us many such glimpses of outer space, and we’ve devoured them, escaping our clumsy, messy, earth-bound gravity for a few moments of levitating bliss.

One of the most exhilarating and widely discussed sequences in movie history is from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This is the hallucinatory bit towards the end where astronaut Bowman’s space pod falls into an extra-dimensional vortex, maybe a wormhole, which results in a psychedelic trip through cosmic netherworlds that nobody could ever actually experience. But thanks to 2001, we have an inkling of what we might expect.

Marooned on Mars in ‘The Martian’.

Similarly, it’s highly unlikely that anyone from earth will travel to a sentient planet that communicates with them by resurrecting loved ones from their past. But Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant Solaris (1972) leaves us with all the wonder, terror, regret and love that we could possibly hope to experience in such a situation. To watch the vast ocean that covers the planet Solaris, shift, morph and change while it communicates with humans aboard a space station orbiting it, evokes equal amounts of rapture and existential dread, and perhaps human minds are better off experiencing such feelings within the protective confines of a movie theatre than out in space.

And therein lies the rub. The end result of all movies set in space, no matter what they actually seek to establish, is to show the limits of human endurance and the inherent fragility of our minds, bodies and the technologies we fashion. So, 2001’s supercomputer HAL aboard the spaceship Discovery One can go through an existential crisis, as can the crew members of the Icarus II in Danny Boyle’s immersive Sunshine (2007) when confronted with the full power of the sun. It’s interesting to see how someone of Boyle’s pop culture sensibilities takes and twists the ancient human veneration of the sun into a kind of holy madness, where people wilfully want to expose themselves to the full glare of the unshielded sun aboard the spaceship, in pursuit of an undefinable urge to return to stardust.

In the movies, our spaceships invariably malfunction, or some rogue human with messianic impulses seeks to sabotage otherwise smooth-sailing missions. We could theorize all we want as to why this happens—beyond the obvious need for dramatic tension—but there is something touchingly quixotic in the faith we repose in the nuts and bolts of spacecrafts, and in the supposed infallibility of the “scientific temperament". The blue-collar workers and scientists aboard the commercial space tug Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) may not be pondering the meaning of life, but when the ultimate nightmare space beast infiltrates their cavernous, gothic ship, light years away from help, they must call upon all their knowledge of air ducts, rocket thrusters, flame-throwers and the knobs and switches and gears that proliferate a spaceship to escape. Invariably, the mothership gets left behind. The Nostromo will perish, as will Icarus II. Discovery One will be abandoned, and so will be the space station orbiting Solaris. Human beings too will be left behind, either sacrificing themselves for a higher cause, or betrayed into the cold void of space by a megalomaniac, or ripped to shreds by an amoral alien. As Cooper says in Interstellar, it’s Newton’s third law, that something gets left behind.

One could then look at space movies as the incubation space of the human imagination, where plans are hatched, designs are made, and limits are tested. Who knew, before watching Alfonso Cuaron’s trippy Gravity (2013) that an astronaut could survive the wrecking of a space station orbiting earth, and despite our aforementioned puniness and fragility, make it back to terra firma in one piece? Or that a scientist can become marooned on a planet, as in The Martian (2015), and proceed to “science the shit" out of what is clearly an unfortunate situation?

We know all this because the movies have shown us how. The reality might be quite different, and decidedly less glamorous, but every time we look up at the stars, and wonder what it might be like, we could go watch a movie.

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