Why our little world needs cinematic space odysseys

As Interstellar arrives in cinemas, James salutes those films that take us, well, somewhere else...

(Note: this article discusses the ending of Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey and it will also hurl you into the void of outer space. Don’t panic, and remember: “In space no one can hear you scream”.)

We’re going Interstellar. Finally, one of the most-eagerly awaited films of the year has landed in cinemas to pick us up and take us beyond the stratosphere and out of Earth’s orbit. Interstellar will then, as the title suggests, propel us even further and push us beyond the outer reaches of the Solar System.

That’s an exhilarating prospect but, putting the conceptual idea aside for a moment, Interstellar is exciting simply because it’s a Christopher Nolan movie. For his first feature since The Dark Knight trilogy’s finale he’s assembled a cast of high-calibre stars (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine) for an original blockbuster with a budget of $165 million and runtime that threatens the three-hour mark.

Nolan is now one of the most powerful figures in the film industry and arguably the biggest name in event cinema. In addition to his position as one of the guiding masterminds behind the DC Comics movie multiverse, he stands as an auteur in his own right, and each release that bears the Nolan brand is built up as something monolithic in the midst of the popcorn landscape. That’s understandable, as he and his collaborators – Emma Thomas, his brother Jonah and a host of regular crew-members and cast members – deliver the goods every time without exception.

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The Nolan brand stands for IMAX-ready blockbuster flicks of enormous scale and grand spectacle, but yet they are grounded in dark-and-gritty aesthetics, intricate plotting and cerebral themes. The director’s works are received with critical adulation and commandeer colossal box office numbers. Nolan’s impact on the movie landscape is evident – right from the indie outbreak after Memento, his key role the comic-book adaptation boom and the redefining of the blockbuster for the new millennium. 

His auteur style and methods are familiar and his influence is great – so much so that the neologisms ‘Nolanise’ and ‘Nolanised’ are now comfortably thrown around in regular film fan conversation. (And possibly even more widely understood than the word ‘Inception‘). Altogether, Chris Nolan is a big deal, but Interstellar is bigger than him and bigger than the star names that have boarded his fresh venture.

This is epic science fiction cinema setting its sights on space – deep outer space beyond our native planetary system. Nolan has dabbled in sci-fi before – with Inception and with Batman’s cutting edge hi-tech in The Dark Knight series – but Interstellar takes the director off-Earth and into space. Space is an amazing place – or state of mind, or abstract notion – to be in (or of) and space movies are, in my humble opinion, the sci-fi flicks that capture the imagination the most and really raise both the medium and the minds of audiences.

I maintain that that’s true even if the movie is actually a bit crappy. Cinema was invented to send the masses into space and give them extraterrestrial, alien experiences. Right from launch – Georges Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon – filmmakers have been eager to take us to another world and send us to strange and fantastical new environments states utterly unlike our regular Earthly reality.

Méliès was way ahead of the curve but, eventually, people caught up and as the Cold War Space Race played out in reality and gripped the popular imagination, more and more movies set their sights on the starry skies. The subgenre has come to be stacked with an eclectic range of motion pictures over the decades – from exuberant tales of adventure in fantastical worlds to terrifying cosmic horror; from goofball comedies to grave disaster flicks; from pointed astro-fitted genre spins to think-piece dramas performing psychological and social studies in the void. 

If you were to put, for instance, Barbarella, Solaris, Dark Star, Alien, Outland and Elysium next to each other you’ll get a clear sense of the variety of filmic fictions projected into and played out across the wild blue yonder. And they’re only a small sample from a vast, shiny multitude and I haven’t even touched upon ‘The Ultimate Trip’ yet. (More on 2001: A Space Odyssey and the evolutionary leap via a clever jump-cut into space later).

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Study the range of works from the pioneering B-movies to contemporary blockbusters and you can see a mix of interesting patterns and trends waxing and waning. Of course as time passes the movie depictions of space travel and space life react to real-world advancements in astrophysical knowledge and progressive achievements in spacefaring.

We’ve gone from the absurdist whimsy of A Trip To The Moon through rockets and space shuttles right up to the realism-orientated, scientifically-sound pictures of more modern times (and academic credibility is the aim for most present space-set flicks, it seems). There’s a considerable difference between the attitude and approach of the old-school adaptations of HG Wells and Jules Verne’s extraordinary voyages with the contemporary productions that call up real scientists as production consultants to ensure authenticity. (Professor Brian Cox being employed on Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is probably the most famous example.)

Gravity – meticulously crafted and so locked-in when it came to creating every single minute detail as it would be in space – is the epitome of this and Alfonso Cuarón’s insistence that it’s wrong to tag the film as ‘science fiction’ is understandable. (I’d say it’s a fiction based on scientific premises so it’s fine to label it as sci-fi but, hey, he’s the guy who devoted years of his life to painstakingly putting together the Oscar-winning masterpiece so I’m not going to argue with him.) 

Regardless of the divergent motives, styles, tones and vibes of all these space voyager movies, they all share a common goal and achieve the same end result – they lift their viewers up and out past the ozone layer and send them flying off towards what Captain Kirk calls “the Final Frontier”. We humble Earth-dwellers get to boldly go where only a few men and women have gone before and that’s a liberating, uplifting and inspiring experience.

The magic of motion pictures lies in their ability to temporarily transport people out of their mundane lives to a marvellous fictional scenario that is wholly different to their day-to-day lives and common stresses. Films can take audiences back to specific past time periods and circumstances or, alternatively, usher them forward into a speculated future. Films can wrap audiences up in unlikely romances, warzones, fantasy realms and encounters with gods and monsters.

Cinema’s simulation possibilities are infinite and I’m most galvanised by the idea that movies can actually allow viewers to experience the infinite that is outer space. The exponential vastness is not imminently accessible, is hard to comprehend and exists as an inconceivable unending mystery that is, for the most part, unexplored. It is thus an ideal abstract sandbox in which to fabricate fiction because really – outside of some of the rudimentary rules of physics – the only limit is your imagination.

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In real life, there are a lot limits on those in search of space. Only a special dedicated few with ‘the right stuff’ (see Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff for some clues) actually get to venture out there. If you don’t quite have said right stuff you won’t be heading up to the heavens on NASA’s or the European Space Agency’s dime (or Galactic Credits, or whatever form of currency is currently the standard among the affluent folks who inhabit the settled regions of Tau Ceti system).

What’s more, government space programmes are affected by budget cuts and financial considerations so manned-and-womanned missions are imperilled by hard economic times. Ultimately, if you want to go into space you either have to be a very fortunate individual of superhuman virtue, intellect and ability across an array of fields or one of the wealthiest people on the planet. As far as I’m aware, tickets for an ultra-exclusive tourist jaunt into space don’t come cheap.

So what are simple, humble dreamers like us to do? Aside from science textbooks and impenetrable academic literature we have to turn to pop cultural outlets to feed our fascination with outer space. On the small screen, non-fiction documentary series like Cosmos (Carl Sagan’s or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent reboot) or those fronted by Professor Brian Cox can enlighten us, educate us and fill us with cosmic awe.

They can be highly entertaining, but entertainment is at a premium in fiction if the nonfiction is getting too heady. Sci-fi novels can stimulate and expand our imagination and the interactive experience of videogaming can virtually place us in extraterrestrial environments but I still maintain nothing supersedes cinema when it comes to feeling the sensation of space.

For complete immersion, nothing beats the darkness of a cinema auditorium with surround sound and a suitably large-scale big screen (and it may in fact be a 3D or IMAX presentation, and that might enhance the whole experience). The spatial dimensions and the multi-sensory nature of the medium make it the optimum means through which you can access outer space. 

I think it’s fair to say that the film that has replicated life in space best and really took audiences ‘out there’ is Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón’s off-world magnum opus suspends viewers in orbit for a (pretty much literally) breathless 90 minutes and, through the isolated ordeal of Sandra Bullock’s Dr Ryan Stone, pulls them away from all earthly attachment (both physical and mental).

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It’s more than an imaginative technical exercise to get a feel for weightlessness, the silence of the vacuum and the overwhelming emptiness of the big black beyond the safe limits of the stratosphere. Gravity is a profound picture that imparts upon us the immense majesty of space and, indeed, our own Earth simply by taking us away to look down upon our home from the heavens.

Stripped down (again, pretty much literally) and forced to let go of everything (definitely literally), Ryan Stone goes through a personal journey in which she is symbolically reborn, coming back down to Earth in the end once the ordeal is over re-defined as a human being and as a soul. We share that spiritual and psychological journey and, for me, Gravity was one of the most shocking cinema epiphanies I’ve ever had.

It goes ‘out there’ (space) but simultaneously took me ‘in there’ – the consolidated incongruous outcome being that I emerged from the multiplex feeling like I’d transcended the human world but yet become more of a human being in the process. It shook me right up – like a rocket take-off sequence – and I went back and saw it again which is either an indication of an existential crisis, a desire to feel like I’m in space or a sign of Gravity’s all-round excellence as both a narrative film and as a resonant experience.

A long-time ago – a year before the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, to be exact – an epic motion picture with similar lofty ambitions was released and achieved its objectives. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a game-changer in 1968 as it provided the world an operatic experience of the extra-terrestrial that they hadn’t hitherto received. The inspired marriage of Arthur C Clarke’s science writing, Douglas Trumbull’s innovative special effects and the artistic eye and unique vision of Stanley Kubrick produced something that is timeless and still, almost 50 years later, deserves to be hailed as ‘the Ultimate Trip’. 

Unlike any before it – and few following it – 2001: A Space Odyssey captured the sublime majesty of space and connected humans to the wider cosmos, emphasising humankind’s evolutionary place among the stars for the first time on screen. Kubrick’s most ambitious work is a sensational and cerebral masterpiece that presented astounded audiences with zero-gravity sequences, a speculative glimpse at a possible future and sample of life in outer space more accessible and immersive than the rough footage coming out of NASA.

A Space Odyssey also allowed audiences to appreciate the poetry and moving beauty of outer space with its classical score and gracious cinematography and editing. (Again, viewers at home were not getting such aesthetic grandeur from news bulletins covering the latest Space Race developments.) It also took us right back to ‘The Dawn of Time’ and chronicled the evolution of our species – from primal hominids to technological masters of the planet, at which point we are able to venture off our own world and create life (artificial intelligence) ourselves.

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The ambiguous ending that sends us through the ‘Star Gate’ and climaxes with the apparent birth of the ‘Star Child’ may be read as the arrival at the next stage of evolution or humanity’s apotheosis or arrival at an enlightened state of existence. Regardless of how you interpret 2001, it operates as a transformative experience with a trajectory going from the physical to the astrophysical to the metaphysical.

That’s all very deep, but thinking on the present and the pop cultural space odysseys to come or that are igniting their engines right now, I come back to face Interstellar. Could it be the Chris Nolan’s new film will be ‘The Ultimate Trip’ of the 21st century – a milestone breakthrough in sci-fi cinema on artistic, technological and philosophical levels?

Even if it doesn’t make it to such celestial heights and divine status as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar should be embraced for its ambitious reach and it looms as a milestone multiplex moment and as an experience well worth taking. This film will take us far away from the Solar System and send us on an incredible quest through the uncharted reaches of the galaxy.

I’ve deliberately avoided spoilers and tried to distance myself from heavy advance detail in the lead-up to Interstellar. Even so, we know that the movie’s story centres around the sad realisation that there is no future for the human race on Earth – a situation that compels a select few astronauts (including McConaughey and Hathaway) to cross the great expanses of space in search of a new hope. 

This will entail interstellar travel – a journey from one star system to another – and suchjaunts are actually not that frequent in film. We’re fond of hanging around the Moon and the prime movie destinations orbiting Sol (especially Mars) but depictions of passages to other systems or even galaxies are seldom depicted on screen.

We have the infamous, simple means of Star Wars’ hyperdrive and the warp speed of Star Trek and they’ve sent those series’ iconic spacecraft ripping across their respective galaxies repeatedly without much fuss or explanation. Elsewhere, there’s little in the way of elaboration or actual portrayal of movement across interstellar space and that’s partly because we’re attempting to visualise what is, at this stage, only a hypothetical notion.

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Literature, however, is a less visual medium and it’s up to the reader to form impressions of what interstellar travel looks and feels like on the basis of the words and suggestions of writers. Authors also have time and space to break down the concepts and guide the audience – an audience who controls the pace and flow of the reading experience – through the abstract and incomprehensible scientific ideas.

Thus, many hard sci-fi novels – including such classics as Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker – have sent readers out far beyond the edge of our Solar System and explored how interstellar travel may work and what its implications and effects might be on the human condition.

Interstellar – backed by the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne – may augment such astounding literary experiences by acting as an audiovisual counterpart – a presentation of complex astrophysical concepts and travel across the galaxy in a spectacular blockbuster package designed to entertain and enthral a diverse array of international cinemagoers.

Even if it doesn’t, Interstellar will provide a shot of cosmic perspective. Simply by sending Earthlings off world the film reminds us that, contrary to our all-too-common short-sighted perception, there’s a whole lot more to the Universe than our own bubble world of personal ego, mundane concerns and close environment. We are just an infinitesimally small part of a larger planet that is actually just one of several orbiting a blazing sun with a mass approximately 300,000 times that of Earth.

That sun is just one of between around 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way and the Milky Way is just one galaxy among hundreds of billions making up the observable Universe. We’re a little sketchier on what exactly exists over 45 billion lightyears away and multiverse theories figuring that our Universe is just one of multitude underline the point – outer space is infinite, unfathomable and awesome. Cinematic space odysseys can act as a nice reminder of that, cultivate curiosity in the stars, potentially educate audiences and maybe even offer a transcendental experience that aligns individuals with cosmic consciousness.

The human race needs to continue to reach out into space. If it isn’t physically possible, movies like Interstellar can at least operate as a moving simulation and transport us up to the wild blue yonder so we can access its mystery, majesty and mindblowing reality. Even if it’s only for a few hours in the darkened, very much Earthbound space of the movie theatre, it’s exhilarating to finally be going Interstellar.

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James Clayton is a humble Earthbound ape who is only a few perfectly timed match cuts and an interstellar Star Gate trip away from evolving into a Star Child who has transcended his Earthliness and become an immense cosmic being. Yeah, space is deep. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’s previous column here.G