We’ve always been fascinated with a world beyond our own and the beginning of film itself illustrated how the desire to explore space consumed our thoughts. Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902 was cinema’s first journey into space and there have been more fictitious journeys into space than actual ones. Hollywood’s relationship with science often mimics our own, and where last year’s space journeys were hopeful – Hidden Figures’ beautiful tale of a group of women attempting to put a man into orbit – this year’s space movies reflect a more terrifying and bleak outlook at our trips outside Earth’s atmosphere. What exactly do these films say about our future relationship with the universe and our own lives within the swirling globe we inhabit?
Because of the dialectical relationship between film and culture science fiction is often utilized as a barometer of the current political climate, thus why space travel in movies ranges from the encouraging to the terrifying. This year’s spate of space-related films veers more towards the frightening and unknown. Daniel Espinosa’s Life, the first space-related film released in 2017, was the first to present the conflicts that arise from fear of the foreign and that assumptions of simplicity would be our undoing.
Life follows a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station who discover definitive proof of life on Mars. The crew is excited about their new discovery, dubbing it “Calvin,” but as with past films like Alien, the group learns that Calvin’s intentions are nefarious. Or are they? Life and Calvin’s role within it can be read two ways. On the surface the film looks at the horrors that lie beyond our world, reminding us to stay safe where we are. Or Life is the story of what happens when American exceptionalism is undone. The discovery of life on Mars comes with a God complex, and it is this cockiness that is their undoing. The group erroneously assumes our intelligence means anything we encounter can be easily understood and controlled. By this interpretation, Calvin becomes the scared, non-white, Anglo-Saxon figure desperate for survival and a world free of scientific, and by extension American, influence.
Unlike movies such as Alien where the creature is defeated – to show up later in various sequels – Life ends with Calvin winning. Life finds a way, to quote Jurassic Park, and as much as the white European characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson do their utmost to assert their dominance and win, Calvin cannot be stopped. Again, it’s easy to interpret this in a negative light: the invasion by a “foreign” invader that can’t be controlled despite the good intentions of plucky scientists. Science, for all its good, can’t stand in for good, old-fashioned military might, and considering the slow build to the political landscape we have no, that could be an astute interpretation. But more likely the invader can be read as the changing politics of America itself, the end result of the current election with the fear coming from entering the unknown of a brave new world with a President at the helm who inspires mistrust and apprehension.
Considering its predecessor’s release in 1979 – just two years into Jimmy Carter’s presidency – the Alien franchise returned in 2017 with Alien: Covenant, a similar story of how military might falls to an alien being. Like its prequel Prometheus, Covenant follows a space crew as well as an artificially intelligent robot that travels with them. Where Life showed its alien lifeform as desperate, and more than worthy, of survival, Alien: Covenant presents a God-like being in the form of Michael Fassbender’s David. David is a pretentious egomaniac who treats science as a fun means of inflicting pain. The residents of the Covenant are shown up as little more than inept ‘80s slasher fodder, completely unable to deal with both David’s manipulation and the alien being out to kill them.
The humans of Alien: Covenant represent the American public, trapped between two possibilities that are equally unpleasant. The cynic would say these possibilities are the election candidates themselves – the know-it-all automaton and the snarling beast – but they could just as easily represent America’s growing frustration with what the resultant election could mean for them; on one side conformity and the need to the control, another a primal rampage that could be our undoing. But, as with Life, the treatment of space remains one of fear. The best way to avoid the problems of the film: stay safe on Earth.
Ironically, the most optimistic film to spotlight space is Disney and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. The continuing adventures of Star-Lord aka Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his gang sees the group splinter apart as a means of helping them learn the true meaning of family. Similar to other sci-fi space adventures like The Martian and Arrival, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 uses the vast landscape of space and science to tell a simple story that could just as easily be told on Earth. It is only through the cooperation of Quill and his family that they can truly defend the universe they’re tasked with protecting.
It’s also worth noting that Earth barely factors into the movie’s worldview. Peter Quill is a native of the planet, born and raised, but has grown up hopping from planet to planet. This concept of your home as being defined by where you’re comfortable and where your family is versus where you are born also factors into Peter’s dueling relationships with his father. His biological father Ego (Kurt Russell) only wants to use and exploit Peter while surrogate father Yondu (Michael Rooker) uses exploitation as a means of avoiding his growing paternal affection for his ward. In both instances, the film seeks to assert that geography, or even familial bonds, are shaped by individuals.
It’s unknown what sci-fi and space exploration will say about us next. Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi could continue the cinematic trend of fear and apprehension about space and science, or they could be positive metaphors for acceptance and change. Either way, we’ll still see space more in a lifetime via our movie screens.