The space age in cinema

The shuttle Atlantis made its final flight last Friday. Ryan looks back at the movies of the space age…

On Friday, the 8th July, a little under thirty years since its maiden flight, the final Space Shuttle launch took place in Florida. That final, dramatic take-off signalled the end of the Space Shuttle’s active service, and appeared to mark the end of America’s space age, at least for the time being.

Introduced in the early 80s, the shuttle was supposed to usher in a new age of cheap, regular and safe trips into space, but its reputation was permanently damaged by two tragedies in 1986 and 2003, and a dwindling government appetite for what was increasingly perceived as an expensive use of public funding.

It’s all a far cry from the optimism and widespread fascination that anything to do with space travel enjoyed in the 50s, when the space age began. While the first satellite, Sputnik 1 wasn’t launched until 1957, the coming era of space exploration and moon landings was anticipated years earlier.

George Pal’s Destination Moon was the first film to attempt a serious depiction of what space travel might look like, and although it got numerous details quite wrong (we didn’t leave Earth’s atmosphere by using atomic power, for one thing), it correctly anticipated the real motivation behind the race to the moon in the 1960s: a desire to beat the Soviet Union, and to prove which side had the superior technology at the height of the Cold War.

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Whatever the motivations were behind the scenes in the 50s and 60s, the thought of flying to the moon and then on into the depths of space resonated throughout the science fiction movies of the period. Films such as Flight To Mars (1951), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and It! The Terror From Beyond Space all dealt with journeys to other planets, and rather fanciful theories about what we might find there.

While most of theses movies were little more than B-pictures, their wide-eyed anticipation of future technology, and a pervading fear of the unknown, is unique to the period. The sense of anticipation over the coming lunar landings was exemplified by the effervescent 1964 adaptation of, which revived HG Wells’ First Men In The Moon novel from 1901, in which adventurous men in suits find a race of intelligent insects lurking beneath the lunar surface.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first film since Destination Moon to deal with the subject of space travel in a serious, scientific manner, and its timing was uncanny. Released just one year before Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, it tapped into audience fascination with space travel, and the film was a huge hit.

The box office success of A Space Odyssey, and the success of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, marked the end of the space race. It was also the point at which filmmakers’ enthusiasm for space travel reached a zenith that it would never again achieve.

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At the time, A Space Odyssey appeared to point the way to the stars. After all, if NASA was able to put an astronaut on the lunar surface a little over eight years after President John F Kennedy made his “We choose to go to the moon” speech, surely missions to Mars and beyond were mere decades away?

Certainly, the amount of detail and scientific research that went into A Space Odyssey gave it an unprecedented patina of realism, and captured the pervading sense that, given time, science would soon be able to perform miracles.

As we now know, the artificially intelligent robots, suspended animation and spinning space stations of A Space Odyssey were nowhere to be seen in 2001, and in 2011, NASA’s flights into space had ceased altogether.

What’s most interesting about sci-fi post A Space Odyssey is that, in spite of that film’s success, very few dealt with the topic of space travel. Marooned, which dealt with the nightmare scenario of being trapped in space, and featuring a sterling cast including Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna and Gene Hackman, arrived mere months after the lunar landings. Likewise the hastily made and wonderfully kitsch, Moon Zero Two (1969).

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Thereafter, sci-fi concerned itself with gloomy, Earth-bound dystopias of A Clockwork Orange and THX 1138 (both 1971). When humankind did venture off into space, in the likes of Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running and Andrei Tarkovsky’s stunning adaptation of Stanislav Lem’s Solaris (both 1972), the films seemed to come from an entirely different age from the movies of the 60s, even though only a few years separated them. Cinema’s childlike fascination with space travel appeared to have faded even more quickly than it appeared.

Growing resentment towards the US government in the wake of the Vietnam War, which began in 1955 and raged for almost twenty years, along with the Watergate scandal in the 70s, sent shockwaves through cinema.

John Carpenter’s first movie, Dark Star (1974), could be seen as a parody of A Space Odyssey that reflected the sense of cynicism felt by the era’s counterculture. A group of bored, neurotic astronauts are given the absurd task of blowing up ‘unstable planets’ by their taskmasters back on Earth, and end up having to talk a sentient bomb out of destroying their ship.

An even greater sense of paranoia and distrust pervades Peter Hyams’ 1978 film, Capricorn One, in which a mission to Mars is faked by the US government. And in Ridley Scott’s Alien, released the following year, a heartless Weyland-Yutani Corporation was perfectly willing to sacrifice the crew of the Nostromo to get its hands on a deadly alien.

Films such as The Black Hole, James Bond adventure, Moonraker (which depicted space shuttle flights two years before they actually launched), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were all set in space, but their making was prompted by the success of Star Wars, rather than audience interest in the exploration of other planets.

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By the 70s, the much-publicised expense (both in terms of money and appalling loss of life) of the Vietnam War and the Apollo programme (the latter reportedly cost the US taxpayer $4 billion per year since 1960) had probably dampened the public’s enthusiasm for NASA’s adventures. The public opinion towards the Apollo missions had always been mixed, in any case. When polled in the late 60s, forty-six percent of US citizens thought that the enterprise was a waste of money, while forty-two percent thought it was worthwhile.

What was needed was a way of making space travel cheaper and safer,  and for a time, the Space Shuttle, a reusable craft capable of carrying up to eight astronauts into space and back again, appeared to provide the answer. When the first shuttle launched in April 1981, it was widely publicised that these vehicles would be blasting off on around fifty missions per year. When Atlantis took off for the final time last week, the total number of shuttle missions added up to just one hundred and thirty-five.

In the movies, 1983’s The Right Stuff served as a salute to the test pilots whose brave efforts led directly to the success of the Apollo missions in the late 60s, but the movie was supposed to reignite the optimism of the early space race. In spite of its excellent direction and favourable reviews, the film failed to find a sizeable audience at the box office. Where the space opera of Return Of The Jedi clawed in more than $475 million, The Right Stuff earned just $21 million.

The following year saw the release of 2010, the sequel to A Space Odyssey. While not a bad film, it failed to recapture the awe and wonder of the original, and director Peter Hyams displayed far less interest in the science of space travel than Kubrick did. 2010 made $40 million at the box office, versus A Space Odyssey‘s towering $190 million.

One film that could have captured people’s interest in NASA’s shuttle programme was 1986’s SpaceCamp, about a group of teenagers who are accidentally launched into space. The film was, unfortunately, a badly written mess, and worse still, released just months after the Challenger disaster that occurred earlier that year. Unsurprisingly, the film bombed.

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It would be many years before Hollywood tackled the subject of space travel again, though daft B-movies such as Moontrap (1989) and The Dark Side Of The Moon (1990) flew the flag.

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) tackled the dangers of space travel head on, and expertly told the story of the 1970 lunar mission that narrowly avoided disaster. Two years later, a group of oil rig workers strapped themselves into a shuttle and flew to a deadly asteroid in Armageddon, while in 2000, a group of ageing astronauts got a second chance to blast off into orbit in Space Cowboys. These, and other movies of the period, such as Contact and Deep Impact, seemed to mark a revived interest in manned space flights among filmmakers and audiences alike.

Gradually, though, the space age appears to have been edged out by the Internet age. For all its achievements, NASA has never found a mission as attention grabbing as its lunar excursions of the 60s and 70s, and the budget and public appetite for a trip to Mars has yet to be mustered. For now, movies such as Red Planet and Mission To Mars remain firmly in the realms of science fiction.

With the retirement of the 30-year-old shuttle, America’s love affair with space appears to have drawn to a close, at least temporarily. NASA’s plans for a permanent moon base, announced in 2006, were scrapped by the Obama administration last year. Journeys outside our atmosphere are now the preserve of those rich enough to be able to afford commercial space flights, or growing economies such as China.

It’s all a far cry from a few decades ago, where generations of children grew up with starry-eyed dreams of becoming astronauts, and when the colonisation of distant planets seemed to be just around the corner.

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The 1987 feature, The Wings of Honnêamise, at least offers a glimmer of hope. An epic of Japanese anime, the film depicts an alternate Earth, in which its space programme has slipped into the doldrums. But in spite of wars, assassination attempts and other assorted tragedies, a group of scientists and fledgling astronauts manage to make a journey into outer space.

Honnêamise is a beautifully animated, inspiring movie, which successfully recaptures the wonder and romance of space travel in a way that has become increasingly rare. It’s a reminder that, while our real-life journey to distant planets has been put on hold, the dream remains alive and well in the realm of movies.

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