By Paul Sawchuk
“Space, the final frontier”; words immortalized by William Shatner in the opening of the seminal series, Star Trek. The words symbolized the exploratory spirit of human-kind as we explored the vast universe beyond us. We were interested in cultures beyond ours, geographies, histories, biologies that existed external to ours fascinated our imaginations. In the late 1960s, Gene Roddenberry’s series, followed up nearly two decades later with Star Trek: The Next Generation and many other prominent science-fiction writers at the time captured our collective imagination with things that existed beyond the border of our atmosphere.
The 2010s are bringing us back to our fascination with space. It’s ensnared our collective imagination yet again, and particularly in film. Most recently Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Ridley Scott’s The Martian look at the grand escape that is the great beyond, and prior to that Doug Jones’ Moon and host of other pure science-fiction films have brought us to space, and not just as a new location to stage a zombie or horror film (looking at you, Last Days on Mars and Europa Report). Contrary to being a new venue for slasher flicks, this new age of science fiction films is a welcome return to the wonderment of space exploration.
At the box office, these films are doing exceptionally well, taking blockbuster status in the rare moment where there are no superhero or big franchise films to compete with. But critically and with audiences, even outside of film, interest in sciences appears to have increased.
They reinvigorate our interest in the sciences, rally against rampant anti-intellectualism and promote confidence in those who are interested in pursuing careers in these fields, but they also don’t condescend or alienate viewers who are looking strictly for entertainment, exemplified by Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) proclamation in The Martian, “I’m going to science the shit out of this.”
But why? We’re forced to ask these questions when we see these sorts of trends, after all. Why now, and why this type of film, the science-fiction based on space exploration/travel with a leaning towards other worlds? As theoretical physics fluidly evolves, our storytellers evolve.
Wonderment. We’re wondering, glancing up at the stars with new and improved technology that allows us to see beyond what used to be “beyond.” Science fiction as a genre examines that blurred line between fiction and reality. Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps more than other authors, examined this trend in the strictest sense. His 2001: A Space Odyssey was produced to be a philosophical examination on evolution over the passage of time in the near future. The novel and film didn’t sensationalize or fictionalize space travel like Star Trek did.
Are we still wondering? Are we being driven in droves to the Cineplexes to see space exploration because we’re captured by the allure of the sciences? Our abundance of access to information away from the traditional media outlets offers a large portion of us to educate ourselves in this area. Do you want to learn more about a constellation? You don’t have to wait for the NOVA special or dig up a dusty encyclopedia anymore, just make a Google or Youtube search and read or watch about it. We’re interested in these things partially because information about them is more accessible, not just behind restrictive academic walls, but also in communicative forms. You won’t be inundated with scientific jargon if you’d like to learn about space. Or, conversely, you may simply learn about this jargon in the process.
So what about these films, then? If our interest is in one way or another prompting movies about hard science and space exploration to return, what is going on in them that is so engrossing? Where Star Trek films and 2001, as well as novels by Clarke, Asimov and others were written with a logical, somewhat mechanical tone in mind, exploring scientific ideas almost academically, today’s science fiction films are at their core a mix of logical, mechanical science and human emotion; Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian couple these cold logistics with the human heart.
Underlying much this is the search for a new planet to call home. Interstellar is about our dying planet and the search for a new one. The Martian is about research on Mars that results in advances in colonizing the planet – whether inadvertent or not. Are we afraid that Earth won’t provide for long? Sometimes bordering on political ideas, science-fiction can insert a commentative subtext into its narrative. After all, it is a genre that has one foot in the door of our world and one in the world of the future which speculates on how we get from one world to the other.
The Martian director, Ridley Scott, who is now preparing another space exploration film with his sequel to Prometheus outlines this exchange in an interview with Deadline, “If engineers are the forerunners of us, and therefore were creators of life forms in places that were possible for biology to function, who created that? Where’s the big boy? You think this was all an accident? I don’t know. Even Stephen Hawking now says, I am not sure. He no longer believes in the big bang.” Scott’s no stranger to space, directing the seminal Alien in 1979 with its own set of questions about our roles in the universe, which Prometheus expanded on. The truth is, we’ve always been interested in space, but coupled with a popular interest in the sciences we are taking it more seriously today.
I’ll close with a question: Are our anxieties about our future what’s bringing forward our increased interest in the sciences and science fiction film? As I write this, The Martian, in its fourth weekend remains top of the box office, narrowly edging out Goosebumps in its second week and new Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies. These films are popular, and not just with sci-fi fans, but on a mass scale. Are we caught up in the wonder of a new frontier, or are we looking for a very real escape?