2001: A Space Odyssey, A Trip to the Moon, Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, Destination Moon, Film, Gravity, Interstellar, John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, Politics, Science Fiction, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
In my last article, I spoke about why we ought to openly display the love we hold for our country. And in discussing what we love about the United States, we harp upon some of this nation’s greatest accomplishments. Perhaps the easiest accomplishment to recall pertains to the might of our armed forces, including their successes in resolving some of the world’s most harrowing military conflicts. But this is not our sole achievement. Historians credit the United States as being the key force behind the creation of the Internet, which was designed during the Cold War as an additional form of communication between government agencies if the country’s telephone system was compromised. These accomplishments are not to be mitigated, but there is an overarching feat that ought to be remembered this month: the successful touchdown of man on the moon. With the 4th of July this month, and the 46th anniversary of Apollo 11 occurring on July 20, let’s take a closer look at depictions of space travel in the science fiction genre.
My fellow classmates and I were born into an era of extraordinary technological innovation. Progress in this area is moving so rapidly, in fact, that many of us are wondering which areas of life can be still be improved upon. This palpable feeling of curiosity must have been present when President John F. Kennedy famously addressed a joint session of Congress, arguing that the United States should commit itself to landing a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.
I cannot imagine the excitement the American public must have held for this prospect, and watching live as Neil Armstrong made that legendary step onto an entirely foreign surface.
The Apollo 11 mission lasted 8 days, during which time Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins collected samples of moon rock and moon dust for further study on Earth. Their rocket traveled an astounding 240,000 miles in only 76 hours. How impressive is that!
Perhaps my favorite tidbit about Apollo 11 concerns the astronauts’ lack of life insurance. Each one of them could not afford the life insurance policy set for astronauts, given the expected likelihood that they may not come back alive. To counteract the unaffordable insurance, these three men signed their autograph hundreds of times, and handed their signatures to a mutual friend. In the case that they did not return home, this friend would give the autographs to their families, who could sell them to provide some financial cushion. Luckily, this precautionary measure was not necessary.
When discussing the use of space exploration in the art world, the 1902 silent film Le Voyage Dans La Luna (A Trip to the Moon) is a great beginning point. Film historians generally consider A Trip to the Moon to be the world’s first science fiction film, and for its time in history, its special effects were simply magnificent. The story begins with a meeting of local astronomers, where the character Professor Barbenfouillis proposes that they send men to traverse the moon. There was some initial pushback, but following further debate, the necessary preparations were made. The men packed into a ship shaped like a bullet, and shot themselves to the moon using a powerful cannon. Their landing is one of the most famous scenes from the silent film era. The moon has the face of a man, and the astronomers’ ship is shot right into the man on the moon’s left eye. The symbolism behind this scene is as clear-cut as it is nuanced. Interestingly, the men walk out of the ship without space suits, and encounter a guarded civilization of aliens called the Selenites. Violence ensues, and the men return to Earth with a member of this newly discovered species in tow.
The film is brief in comparison to the length of a modern movie, but it raises an issue that had to be considered before the Apollo Program was commissioned: What is space like? Can humans emigrate to the solar system’s observable planets? If you have the time, I would recommend visiting the Smithsonian Institution’s website and searching for images of what our ancestors believed the Earth looked like from space.Some of these pictures are striking, and reveal the extent of the human imagination on these matters. As time progressed with continuous improvements in technology, our perceptions of the Earth and all other interstellar bodies became more scientifically correct in the artistic medium.
The science fiction genre had a difficult time making its mark in the cinema of the early 1930s and 1940s, even though films became increasingly escapist in the United States due to the all-encompassing economic collapse of the Great Depression. The next major landmark film about space exploration was produced after World War II, and was titled Destination Moon. This film was released in 1950, and told a tale about three space enthusiasts named Dr. Charles Cargraves, General Thayer and Jim Barnes.
These men engineered a rocket ship that they named Luna, and blasted off from Earth before any political complications could deter their journey. More specifically, there was great public concern over radiation safety, and citizens of this country were hesitant to approve a mission they considered to be alarmingly dangerous. Once in space, the astronauts left the ship in mid-flight and attached themselves to the hull using magnetic boots.
This film marks a major transition in the cinematic depiction of space. As scientists became increasingly more knowledgeable about the nature of space, including the fact that gravity is significantly weaker outside the planet Earth, space movies became more accurate and, as a result, more intriguing. After all, many of us are curious to experience what it feels like to be in zero gravity.
Another pivotal change this movie ushered in was the precarious nature of space travel. This would influence later space travel films by instilling a sense of danger in leaving the Earth, thereby inspiring stories that were more treacherous and, consequently, more dramatic.
Eleven years later, John F. Kennedy announced The United States’ intent of landing a man on the moon. The excitement from this proclamation was crystallized into one the most famous science fiction films of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story was shared through a film directed by Stanley Kubrick and a book written by the great Arthur C. Clarke. If you have not yet seen this film, I would recommend watching before all the ones I have already mentioned. It is a movie that spans a particularly long period of time, chronicling man’s rise from primitive hunters to universal travelers.
The plot follows the exploits of one Dr. David Bowman, who travels through the solar system aboard the Discovery One to the planet Jupiter. The film is famous for its sparse use of dialogue, and instead emphasizes a triumphant soundtrack that decorates the magnitude of this colossal human achievement of space travel.
Today, 2001: A Space Odyssey is universally acclaimed and considered to be one of the most important films of all time. Steven Spielberg, who has also greatly contributed to this genre as a whole, commented that 2001: A Space Odyssey was “the big bang of his generation,” and that no documentary, no other movie and no other IMAX experience has made him feel in space as 2001 did. George Lucas, the mind behind the Star Wars films, has gone on record saying that Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie, and it would be extremely difficult for any filmmaker to come along and make a better film.
One year later, the United States dispatched Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts to the moon, inspiring an entire generation of Americans to think about our place in the universe much differently than we had before. This was a beautiful moment in which the imaginations and aspirations of men came together in fictional settings and in real life. The whole world started to ask what else mankind can accomplish in space, and whether we could colonize other planets. As a result, the sheer incredulity of traveling through space became much less farfetched, and increasingly became more likely as technology continued to grow in sophistication. In short, the question concerning the possibility of space travel was no longer an “if.” It was only a question of when.
Several years later, the most famous trilogy of science fiction films emerged and dominated the cultural conscious. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was released in the year 1977, and its sense of adventure reinvigorated the science fiction genre. Unlike many science fiction films of the past, Star Wars described life in a galaxy far, far away that showed humans (for the most part) living peacefully with different alien species. This is an important characteristic that could one day prove to be truthful. Perhaps one day humans and other alien species will meet, and this encounter need not be violent or dominative. Another achievement of the Star Wars films is their incredibly convincing space battles, all of which have stood the test of time thus far. The Star Wars films are a consistent reminder that space and the worlds beyond our own are beautiful, complex, and awe inspiring.
Space exploration films, up until the present day, have continued to be more realistic and increasingly thought provoking. Two examples which immediately come to mind are the 2013 film Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. And while it is true that NASA’s budget has been cut significantly, there is still great anticipation for the possibility of landing on another planet. As long as the excitement for further space exploration remains in all of us, I am confident that movies that depict space travel will be become more realistic and as thought provoking as ever.