The top 10 things the movies can teach us about space travel

With Apollo 18 out today in UK cinemas, James takes a look at 10 things the movies can tell us about travelling into space...

Space: The final frontier. Or so we’re assured. In fact, the movies have already done a pretty good job of considering every threat that might be out there, likely or otherwise – so by examining the collective imagination of writers and directors everywhere, what can we learn about space travel?

Don’t take anything smarter than a Commodore 64

From Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to GERTY in Moon, to Ash in Alien, and more besides, the movies teach us that, no matter how friendly and helpful your digital friend might act when you’re around, there’s a good chance that they’re actually following the orders of whichever borderline psychopath it was that sent you into space. I’m no android racist (some of my best friends are computers), but history has proven that when you’re in space, the last person you want backing you up is a robot. Except Bishop in Aliens. He was alright.

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In space, no-one can hear you scream…

…but strangely, everyone can hear you explode. Okay, so what if sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum? Do we really want to sit in a movie theatre watching epic space dogfights aurally complemented by naught but the popcorn-munching cretin in the seat next to us? Hell no.

Science fiction and space operas routinely commit far greater crimes against physics, and would the Tie Fighters of Star Wars be half as iconic without that scream ringing in our ears? I think not. There are many things movies get wrong about space, but this is one that even the nerdiest viewer would find it hard to complain about.

Superpowers May Ensue

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Cosmic rays. To most astronauts and physicists, they’re DNA-shredding radioactive particles, some of which move at speeds so fast we can’t even explain where they come from. But to others – like the Fantastic Four, for example – they’re the ticket to fame, fortune and a widely derided movie franchise. And hey, if that doesn’t pan out, maybe while you’re up in the stars you can get your superpowers from some aliens who are in the area, like the Green Lantern or Venom did.

Time Dilation: not usually a problem

The theory of General Relativity tells us that anyone travelling fast through space – for example, at the kind of speeds you need to travel to reach another star without dying of old age – would experience time far slower than those people on their home planet. For example, if you were travelling at 0.999999 times the speed of light, every day you lived would correspond to over 700 on Earth – and even then, it’d still take you four years to reach our nearest star.

At those speeds, an eight year round-trip for you would mean an eight million year wait for your family and friends. It’s no surprise most movies just fudge time dilation away through the use of loosely-defined warp drives, wormholes, or hyperspace jumps.

…But when it is…

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Of course, if a movie remembers time dilation actually exists, you can be damn sure it’s because it’s going to cause big trouble. Charlton Heston found himself at the mercy of time dilation in the original Planet Of The Apes, being catapulted into the distant, ape-ruled future of Earth as a result.

Meanwhile, in the anime Gunbuster, heroine Noriko constantly has to deal with the effects of running missions at light speed, including watching her friends graduate far in advance of her, and meeting her best friend from high school, now a middle-aged woman with a child. Harsh.

Becoming an astronaut is pretty easy

From the kids in Space Camp to the oil rig workers of Armageddon, it turns out you don’t have to be a brilliant scientist or former test pilot with extensive training to get into space. You pretty much just have to be capable of putting on a spacesuit in the right order. At worst, you’re forced to endure a brief training montage, assuming you prepare at all.

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After all, Flash Gordon was nothing more than an American football player who didn’t even want to go to space, and he saved the entire planet. If the reluctant can somehow manage that kind of feat, there’s hope for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic yet.

Launches don’t get scrubbed

The recently-retired Space Shuttle is so revered and iconic that it has appeared in hundreds of films as a testament to the limitless power of human endeavour. Except, of course, part of the reason it was scrapped because the so-called re-usable spacecraft was so difficult to get in the air that it’s a surprise it ever managed to lift off at all.

In 135 missions, there were over 150 delays, more than half of which were due to technical problems, and almost a third to bad weather. Moonraker (which came out before the first shuttle even took off, to be fair) Space Cowboys, even Transformers: Dark Of The Moon all featured launches in rather unusual circumstances, and nary a moment’s delay to speak of.

Apollo 18 further proves this fact: the real Apollo 18 never made it off the ground, but the movie version gets all the way to the Moon before the trouble starts!

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Don’t waste time packing a phrasebook

Of all the alien races humanity has encountered in the movies, the vast majority appear to have a conveniently decent grasp of English. And those that don’t? Well, they generally aren’t interested in conversing anyway (see Aliens, Mars Attacks!, Predator).

While the Star Trek franchise made a brave attempt to include a linguist on staff every now and then, most races are forced to learn our language if they want to chat. The Autobots learnt English from the Internet, the Na’vi had their own language school, and even E.T. made a fair stab at it in the time he had – but like Brits on holiday in Europe, humans rarely reciprocate the effort of their extra-terrestrial cousins. Luckily for audiences, really.

Of course, as Contact points out, it might take more sense to pack a maths textbook instead. After all, maths is a universal language. Anyone for Pi?

Do pack some anti-psychotics

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The only thing worse than regular madness? Space madness. Now, as if it wasn’t enough of a problem that your android crewmate is probably thinking of wearing your ears as a necklace, space travellers also have to contend with the fact that their human crewmates could snap at any moment. Some examples include the cast of John Carpenter’s Dark Star, who have all gone completely round the bend (with hilarious consequences), and more seriously, Pinbacker in Sunshine and Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) in Armageddon, neither of whom you’d exactly want in charge of your oxygen supply on a spacewalk.

Something always goes wrong

Remember all those films about how space travel is safe, how the universe is a generally warm and welcoming place, and how everyone in it is friendly and peaceful? No, us neither. From The Fifth Element to Apollo 13, from Star Wars to Jason X, no one who went into space ever had an easy time of it.

Murderous aliens, technical failures, cruel galactic overlords and garden-variety psychopathic crewmates are present at every turn. Even Star Trek, which maintains a steady tone of optimism, can’t get away from the fact that space is full of strange aliens and phenomena that’ll kill you, strand you, or – at best – replace you with a duplicate of yourself from another dimension or timeline.

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With prospects like that, well, you can be forgiven for preferring to keep your feet on the ground.

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