How the movies are making space fun again

The launch of Guardians Of The Galaxy leaves James thinking about space movies, and how Marvel have made them fun again...

“I hate space!” Dr. Ryan Stone, Gravity.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, people didn’t hate space. As a matter of fact they really liked space. Space was romantic. Space was exciting. Space was supremely stelliferous and resplendent with diverse worlds, exotic alien species and assorted cultures. Space was wide, wide open for an amazing array of exhilarating, unearthly adventures.

Space was fun. So why is Sandra Bullock’s Dr Stone – the heart of Gravity, the space movie of the 21st century so far – not having fun? Why are a considerable number of other recent movie astronauts – Moon’s Sam Bell, the crews of Prometheus and Sunshine to name a few – feeling so low? Thinking about films that shoot cinemagoers beyond the stars, I can’t help but conclude that there’s an imbalance that possibly needs adjusting. It may be rectified by a gun-toting, wisecracking raccoon, but first let’s hyperdrive back into history to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The story I’m alluding to begins with a bored, frustrated young farmboy mooning at the twin suns, eager to escape to a new life. A New Hope arises, however, as said kid finds a mentor in a mystic old hermit who sends our soon-to-be-hero on a quest to rescue a princess and fight the dark forces of evil who’ve captured her. Joining him on this transformational journey are a couple of comic robots, a charismatic rogue pirate and a giant hairy sidekick who communicates in growls.

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This odyssey has swashbuckling duels, laser blaster shootouts, jailbreaks, celestial dogfights in the dark void, the destruction of the baddies’ floating super-fortress and a tight squeeze in a stinky trash compacter. Plus it has lots of beeping noises, strange little creatures all over the show and a massive rebellion against utter tyranny with underdog rebels rising up against the big bad authority who are devoted to doing evil and looking evil.

The sequels offer the same with bonus winterworld wars, teddy bear forest battles, more gripping hero showdowns, an obese slug gangster, a man-eating pit in the desert and a fishfaced admiral blurting “It’s a trap!” What’s more, we get to go through mystic warrior training in the swamp under the aegis of a diminutive green monk alien who talks funny. 

Laugh it up, fuzzball – it’s so much fun. Everyone had a good time when Star Wars landed on Earth, and audiences the world over found themselves smiling (or whooping, because you can’t help but whoop when Luke blows up the Death Star). A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – well, Hollywood, which is pretty much another world – George Lucas reminded people just how much fun outer space could be counter to or in spite of the prevailing mood of the times.

The prevailing mood – both in science fiction cinema and in real life – was that space was not a giddy good time but rather something somewhat serious or, indeed, grave. Leaping forward to the present day and sensing that the outlook on the extraterrestrial beyond is once again less perky, I’m hoping that Guardians Of The Galaxy – freshly released into theatres by Marvel Studios – can do the same thing.

Before we get down to talking Groot and quibbling about Peter Quill, let me break it down by breezing back again through time and space even further to earlier aeons of sci-fi and astrophysical contemplation. Once upon a time in the minds and imaginations of humankind – an age before humankind (or Laika the dog) had even made it into orbit – space was an immense and tantalising unknown.

Having effectively mapped the whole of Earth, people looked skyward and started to figure outer space as the new ‘terra incognita’, as it were – “The Final Frontier” indeed. Up there and out there was mystery and obscurity. The starry ocean was an infinite expanse of possibility to explore, conquer and come to properly comprehend. The successful launch of Sputnik stirred the minds of humble Earthlings and the escalating Space Race, likewise, brought space into the popular consciousness while simultaneously making it imminent and exciting.

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The cinematic spirit of the 1950s and 60s echoes the exuberance of the first literary works that ventured off-world at the turn of the 20th century. Read something like, say, A Princess Of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs or Edison’s Conquest Of Mars by Garrett P Serviss and you’ll find yourself deeply immersed in high-flying, outrageous pulpish fantasy. Those seminal spacegoing stories offer easy escapism into alien worlds where hero human protagonists perform derring-do and have wildly entertaining breathless capers of the old-school kind.

Naturally, as technology and astrophysical knowledge advanced so did sci-fi writing, with the novels becoming more technically accurate and – for want of a better word – increasingly sophisticated. There’s a world of difference between the verve-packed extraordinary voyages of HG Wells, Jules Verne and their ilk and the later stories of Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick and Robert Heinlein. Science fiction authors began colouring their speculative visions of space life with darker tones, fleshing them out with human themes and bringing intellectual depth to their off-world narratives. 

Such developments were paralleled in film. The rocketblast that launched cinema – George Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon – is a whimsical fever dream that boasts exploding insectoid aliens, a complete ignorance of the laws of physics and a lunar satellite that is a giant smiley face (and it keeps smiling even when astronomers shoot a rocketship into its eye). Successive spacegoing flicks may not have been so improbable, but the peppy spirit, naïveté and vivacious verve are still evident in the B-movies that took cinemagoers into the starry sky up until the 1960s. (Off the top of my head, Destination Moon and Forbidden Planet are two stand-out pictures among many).

More scientifically solid and precise portrayals of space travel started to appear and additional introspection and socio-political subtexts segued into the starbound stories as time moved on. Then 2001: A Space Odyssey – “the ultimate trip” conceived by Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick – arrived and took stargazing cinemagoers into a whole new dimension of cerebral, spiritual and sensually stimulating sci-fi cinema. The following year the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed some men on the Moon. In real life and on screen, space travel was going through milestone moments and the Earthling outlook was rapidly altering.

The optimism and boldly going best exemplified by the original Star Trek TV series was soon notably absent at the cinema as the spacegoing pictures morphed into very different organisms. Masterpieces like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (based on the Stanisław Lem novel) and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running examined astronauts’ psyches and presented a more pessimistic vision of outer space – a brooding blackness where bad things happen and where pensive, flawed protagonists battle paranoia and personal trauma instead of intrepidly venturing forth with irrepressible pluck.

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It’s possible that space began to feel less fantastical and elusive after the achievement of that “great leap”, the Moon landing. What’s more, as the 70s swept in, the spirit of the age turned as the Vietnam World rumbled on, Watergate erupted, global economies went sour and the Free Love era faded out. Taking the general climate into consideration you can understand why the period’s sci-fi movies were more markedly sombre, cogitative or, shall we say, ‘far less peppy, playful and packed with upbeat astro-hijinks’.

Enter the Saga-Father with a fresh shot of fun to revitalise the blockbuster cinemascape and sweep away some of the dolour. With Star Wars – and Indiana Jones, for that matter – George Lucas sought to revive the spirit of the vintage adventure serials of yore. He wished to hearken back to the ‘good old days’ when spacemen were men, when aliens were more important than studying alienation and when nothing got so complex that the complexities might mess up the marvellous mindless cosmic capers we were enjoying so much.

This is why we’re not going to kick up a fuss about Leia kissing Luke or start getting pedantic about blaster sound effects in the vacuum of space. Those who gripe about the logistical impracticalities and impossibilities of the Galactic Empire or dismiss it as “kids’ stuff” are missing the big picture. *Waves fingers, Jedi mind trick motions* You do not want to nitpick and hate on Star Wars. You want to go home and rethink your life… 

I want to have some fun in space and feel like space is awesome fun and, for me, Star Wars is the perfect specimen. Let me be clear though – I don’t want to denounce head-scratching, soul-searching sci-fi at all, because that stuff is my jam and I love it to Tau Ceti and back. Most of the time, I get my main kicks by watching misery-laden space movies and reading bleak hard sci-fi novels but it’s true that variety is the spice melange of life.

I’d say that a myriad mix of tones, stylings and approaches to the epic infinity that is the Universe beyond our own little planet is essential. As I survey the movie scene and reflect on the majority of astrophysically-interested flicks, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the sub-genre needs a little more levity and light-heartedness as a counterbalance.

In spite of Star Wars’ phenomenal success, the tendency in spacegoing cinema is towards pessimism and anxiety and we can probably put this down to the Alien effect. Ridley Scott’s intergalactic suspense horror masterpiece is possibly the most influential sci-fi flick ever made, and the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream” serves as both a reminder that space is a vacuum and a harsh warning that space is cold, brutal and hostile.

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If you’ve got the special effects budget, that infinite, inhuman void is an excellent setting for survival thrillers (Gravity, Sunshine), horror movies (Event Horizon, The Last Days On Mars) and poignant, isolated portraits of working stiff drudgery and the difficulty of the human condition (Moon and Outland, because it ain’t easy being Space Marshall Sean Connery). 

Approach outer space from a different perspective, however – through the eyes of a child or a listless Tatooine farmboy perhaps – and you may begin to appreciate the Big Black in a better (star)light. Though they are fewer and farther between, there are a number of movies that fire up a sense of stellar fun and go a bit ‘out there’ when their characters venture ‘out there’. Stellar-spoofs like Dark Star, Spaceballs and Rocketman, for instance, all defy the rule that “In space no one can hear you laugh”.

Fleeting flash-memories of Total Recall, Starship Troopers and The Fifth Element provide testimony that movies do show the sillier, super-loopy side of space but those moments are overshadowed by the extraterrestrial anguish that dominates. Even the Star Wars prequels – movies that have Jar Jar Binks and a high hit-rate of poop gags and bad Threepio puns – lost a little of the classic spirit with trade disputes and Anakin’s emo-mopeyness cramping its celestial fairytale style.

I’d say that the time is right for another galaxy-size-grin space opera riot. I sense – and I’m guided by the Force – that the popular mood is favourable and that cinemagoers want to experience a family-friendly sci-fi blockbuster that’s determined to be, more than anything, a real fun, ultra-upbeat ride across the Final Frontier.

We have fresh excitement and a new hope in the upcoming Star Wars sequels. Plus there are future Avatar instalments that will hopefully dial down the didacticism and the promise that the Flash Gordon reboot will happen and be gloriously ludicrous. First though, we have the imminent Marvel Cinematic Universe release that really is expanding the super-franchise’s Universe.

Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy arrives as the perfect preposition and, because I’m an optimistic believer and lover of space, I’d say it’s going to soar where pulpish peculiarities like Flash Gordon, David Lynch’s Dune and John Carter failed to launch and find massive popularity. This could very well be the space opera we’ve been waiting for which will bring balance to the galaxy and show us, once again, that space is an exhilarating, ultra-exciting fun immensity of limitless possibility.

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We need not fear it – let’s boldly go with a big grin and a playful spirit and have ourselves a good time. We’re in space with a smart-ass fighting raccoon and we’re going to save the galaxy! Oh, this is so much fun – laugh it up, fuzzball.

James Clayton is spaced out and feeling silly and that’s a beautiful state to be in, especially if you’re enjoying the company of a rocket launcher-toting, talking raccoon at the same time. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’s last column here.