From A Trip to the Moon to The Martian, science-fiction has powered the minds and hearts of this technological world for over a century.
Movies set in space have been around almost as long as the movies themselves, yet seem to be making a renaissance in this new decade. They began as litmus tests in the early 1900s, probing the boundaries of the imagination. Now, with new cinematic techniques and technological advancements, space films have become more serious, more astute, and dare I say it, more grounded.
Yes, Hollywood is still churning out your Star Wars and Star Treks, overflowing with monsters and creatures from beyond, but ever since the unprecedented success of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity in 2013 (still in my top 3 films of the decade so far), there has been at least one sombre, melodramatic sci-fi movie every year featuring hardworking human beings on a quest to better themselves. And they always seem to be aiming straight for one of those naked gold statuettes.
We’ve had hard-hitting space movies before. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a fine example. Most of it took place in the far reaches of the cosmos. Looking back at it now, if you can wrap your head around it, it certainly feels like Oscar-bait material. Then of course we were zapped by Star Wars in 1977 – certainly Oscar-bait material – snatching one of the few Best Picture nominations for what many at the time considered science-fiction mumbo jumbo. It literally blasted open the doorway to the modern Hollywood blockbuster and informed studio execs all over the States that it was cool and lucrative to send clueless people into space to do battle with hideous monsters.
So effective was this business model that within five years, Ridley Scott threw Sigourney Weaver at a drooling Xenomorph; Gene Roddenberry sanctioned the first ever Star Trek feature film; Spielberg’s alien phoned home; and both MGM and Paramount released space-themed sequels, one to James Bond, the other to Flying High! (1980), neither successful. The studios cashed in on George Lucas’ triumph without fully understanding what their money was buying; by the turn of the century they had burnt themselves out and the sci-fi engine was powered almost exclusively by the loyalty of placated Trekkies.
What Gravity did in 2013 was re-humanise the science-fiction collective by slapping all the Warp Drives and lightsabres out of its system and replacing them with human beings and… other human beings. No evil red-eyed computers. No swishing and swooshing of laser swords. No distant solar systems inhabited by Romulans. It stripped the genre down and retrofitted it with state-of-the-art CGI, minimalist storytelling, and an empathetic human story about survival. And it worked, at least for the first couple of waves. After that everyone who loved the film overhyped it for their friends and stifled its popularity.
That, however, didn’t stop it from being nominated for ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and winning seven. Finally, a full-blooded sci-fi film racking up the trophies on awards night. And what did this success do? Inspire others, of course. That same year, Tom Cruise starred in Oblivion, about mankind’s last hope on a beleaguered Earth. That was followed swiftly by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, also about survival, set in deep space. It borrowed audio decisions almost directly from Gravity and enjoyed several Oscar nominations. Then The Martian swooped by in 2015, a film about Matt Damon once again requiring rescue services from the US government. It was nominated for Best Picture and, like Interstellar, shared some of Gravity’s dramatic flair. And now, this year, Denis Villeneuve directs Arrival, not exactly a space movie, but science-fiction nonetheless. Who knows – Arrival might usher in yet another phase of sci-fi progression, leading this well-worn but perpetually creative genre on for a brand new generation of stargazing dreamers. And if they ever get bored of astronauts spiralling untethered in space, they can always switch one channel up and enjoy Star Wars Episode XIV: The Never-Ending Disney Story.
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films