Explorers arrive on a world covered in knee-high water. Distant “mountains” come sweeping towards them: a planet-spanning kilometres-high killer tide. They escape, only for an unhinged astronaut to maroon them, a little later, on a solid airborne cloud of exotic ice.
Often silly, sometimes truly visionary, Interstellar is the best rejoinder the 21st century has yet made to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey. Matthew McConaughey plays Joseph Cooper, a widowed NASA pilot who is called upon to journey into interstellar space to find an Earthlike “Planet B” for us to move to, now that the Earth’s food system is collapsing. Jessica Chastain plays his grown-up daughter, haunted by her father’s ghost.
Their performances carry real conviction, but it is the set pieces that matter. Gargantua, a spinning black hole that provides the film with its climax, is a visual effect calculated so accurately by physicist Kip Thorne and rendered so meticulously by London effects studio Double Negative, it ended up in a paper for the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.
Years earlier, Thorne and film producer Lynda Obst had conceived of a movie exploring what, in an interview with Science magazine, Thorne called “the warped side of the universe – black holes, wormholes, higher dimensions, and so forth”. They’re the subject of Thorne’s very entertaining book The Science of Interstellar.
Nolan, meanwhile, has gone on to make movies of increasing complexity. Tenet is his latest, doing for time what Interstellar did for space.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is preparing to leave the moon at the end of his three-year stint as sole supervisor of a helium-3 mine. (Robert Zubrin’s book Entering Space gave Duncan Jones the film’s industrial premise.) But Sam is also trapped in the carcass of a crashed lunar ore conveyor. And as Sam and Sam wrestle with their inexplicable meeting, they must solve an obvious and pressing puzzle: just how many more Sams might there be?
Offered a low-budget British sci-fi movie by a first-time director, Rockwell left things until the last minute, then grabbed at the chance of playing against himself. Once on board, his commitment was total: riffing and extemporising off memories of his own performance, he insisted on distinguishing the two Sams more by demeanour than by costume changes. The result is a compelling, emotionally charged thriller, spiked with an inventive mix of effects (from CGI to model work to simple, deft editing) that keeps the audience off-balance throughout the movie. Jones has yet to top his debut work, and Rockwell, for all his subsequent successes, will forever be remembered as the Moon guy(s).
Shot in the European Space Agency’s training facilities in Germany, and in the complex outside Moscow that is home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Alice Winocour’s third feature Proxima never leaves the ground, and yet it remains an out-of-this-world experience.
Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois brilliantly captures these rarely glimpsed spaces in all their strangeness, banality and occasional dilapidation. One can’t help but think, watching this, that being an astronaut must be like being a professional athlete – one’s glamorous career being conducted, for the most part, in smelly changing rooms.
Plaudits also to Eva Green for her portrayal of Sarah Loreau, a single mother given a last-minute opportunity to join a mission to the International Space Station. Green conveys wonderfully Sarah’s conflicted state of both wanting to go to space but not wanting to be separated from her daughter. The solution is there but it’s going to be hard to forge, and Green’s performance is heart-rending.
Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, member of a sensible and resourceful space-going cargo crew whose capabilities are going to prove of no use whatsoever as they confront a predatory, stowaway alien.
Critics loved Alien: they said it would change how we thought about science fiction. It also, for some of us who caught it at the right age, changed how we thought about biology.
We have been an apex predator for so long, we have forgotten the specialness of our privilege. Alien reminds us of what the natural world is really like. It locates us in the middle of things, not without resources but most definitely not at the top of a food chain. It reminds us that living processes are predatory – that life is about tearing living things apart to get at their raw material.
The clumsily named “xenomorph” of the Alien movies has an infamous life cycle, loosely based on those of certain parasitic wasps, but with the added ingredient of plasticity. A hugged human brings forth a humanoid alien. A hugged dog produces a canine. (Where the aquatic aliens of Alien: Resurrection (1997) spring from is anyone’s guess.)
If you want to know what Darwin said, read On the Origin of Species. But if you want to know how it must have made its original readers feel – go watch Alien.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
When Stanley Kubrick suggested a movie idea to British writer Arthur Clarke, Clarke responded enthusiastically. “The ‘really good’ science-fiction movie is a great many years overdue,” he wrote.
The question – which the two never really resolved – was which really good movie to make. A film about the triumph of science and technology? Or a film about the timeless yearnings of the human spirit?
While Kubrick, a student of human nature, director of searing and discomforting films like Paths of Glory and Lolita, mined Japanese sci-fi movies for special effects, Clarke, a communications satellite pioneer as well as a writer, worked up a script centred on what he later dubbed “the God concept”.
Encompassing everything from the dawn of man, the space race, artificial intelligence, space exploration and trans-dimensional travel, 2001 centres on the duel between David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the inadvertently-designed-to-be-murderous HAL, a computer that is guiding his ship to Jupiter. We tend to assume Clarke provided the film’s gosh-wow factor and Kubrick provided the unease. Not so: his 1960 story, The Challenge of the Spaceship shows Clarke already painfully aware of the challenges faced by a “little, self-contained community floating in vacuum millions of miles from anywhere, kept alive in a bubble of plastic and metal” with “absolutely nothing” happening.
The boredom and incipient madness that haunt both Bowman and the ship’s poor, boxed-in AI are the film’s chief point: that we cannot live by reason alone. We need something more.
Hidden Figures (2016)
At NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1961, three Black female mathematicians, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), contribute their considerable mathematical ability to the agency’s efforts to launch white men into space. The unit they work in is segregated by gender and race but the difficulties they face are ignored by many of their colleagues. Their boss, Al Harrison, (a composite fictional character played by Kevin Costner), feels otherwise and proceeds to desegregate NASA single-handedly, armed only with an acid tongue and a sledgehammer.
The film is loosely based on 2016 book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, although it takes a less factual approach. For example, the film delays Johnson’s pioneering work by a good decade so that she can share feel-good moments with the other female cast members.
Whether that matters comes down to personal taste. It is no small thing that, thanks to this film, we now know Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson by name.
Apollo 13 (1995)
On 11 April 1970, a seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space programme launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was due to land in the Fra Mauro crater, and help establish the early history of both the moon and Earth.
Two days into the journey, an oxygen tank in the spacecraft’s service module exploded, and their flight path was changed to loop them around the moon and bring them back to Earth on 17 April. Dizzy from carbon dioxide levels in the air, mounting at a rate they thought would kill them, soaking wet from all the condensation, cold because power was now severely limited, and with only plastic bags of their own urine for company they couldn’t jettison for fear this would alter their course, commander Jim Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert and Lunar Module pilot Fred Haise uttered hardly a word of complaint. Incredibly, they survived.
For his script, director Ron Howard has added one argument between Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Haise (Bill Paxton) and otherwise changed barely a word of the official Apollo 13 transcript. Tom Hanks plays Lovell as a capable man dealing with a crisis. There are no epiphanies. Souls aren’t searched. For some, this might make for a slightly muted experience. But this painstakingly accurate film (the sets included bits of the Apollo 13 command module; even the actors’ pressure suits were airtight) remains peerless, utterly convincing in every shot and every gesture.
First Man (2018)
As if landing on the moon wasn’t enough, Neil Armstrong spent the rest of his life having to describe the experience to the world’s media. No wonder he became something of a recluse – which of course only served to generate even more media interest.
Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer and university professor, was a man who enjoyed his privacy. Cornered, what could he do but tell the same story again and again and again? Disappointed, their curiosity unslaked, people called him dull.
Two years after hurling a vocally challenged Ryan Gosling into his musical La La Land, Damien Chazelle cast him as Neil Armstrong, in a movie that promised to locate Armstrong’s beating heart and rich emotional life. As such, First Man is a triumph.
Gosling is the film actors’ film actor, capable of expressing deep emotion with astounding economy. Playing “buttoned up” hampers him hardly at all. And he is given plenty to work with. Josh Singer’s ingenious script gives Armstrong a profound and personal motivation for wanting to reach the moon that in no way interferes with the historical record, or trivialises its celebrated subject. As for the moon landing itself, it represents a milestone in cinematic technique. You’ll believe you were there, and you’ll wonder, deeply, why Armstrong, or anyone else for that matter, ever went.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Anchored by powerful performances by Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager and Ed Harris as John Glenn, Kaufman’s 3-hour-13-minute epic loosely follows Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name: a heart-thumping yet critical account of the earliest US efforts to send humans into space.
What is needed for that is, of course, “the right stuff”: a combination of skill, bravery and a somewhat blood-curdling fearlessness in the face of death. They are qualities superbly embodied in Shepard’s performance as test-pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier (and, incidentally, a consultant on the film).
Leaving Earth also needed collaboration, organisation, even – heaven help us – publicity. Ed Harris is the squeaky-clean Glenn, destined to be the first American in space, whose “right stuff” has had its rough edges shaved off by endless classes, tests, magazine profiles and media events.
Historically, The Right Stuff isn’t especially accurate. In particular, Mercury astronauts Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard were critical of the way the film short-changed their compatriot Gus Grissom, who died in the Apollo 1 fire.
Still, it is a thoughtful and intelligent movie, as well as a thrilling one, and it captures very well the moment space travel became a serious, and corporate, enterprise.
The Martian (2015)
Premised on a single, staggering inaccuracy (a Martian storm could never get up the energy to blow a spacecraft over) The Martian is an otherwise cleverly figured-out tale of how an astronaut (Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon), left for dead on the surface of Mars, might survive for four years on a diet of potatoes grown in recycled faecal matter.
Based on a book (by Andy Weir) that itself began life as a series of blog posts, Scott’s film retains an endearing, cobbled-together quality, which neatly (and by the end, really quite movingly) reflects Watney’s scrabble for survival.
Boasting habitat, spacesuit, spacecraft and launch vehicle designs that all carried NASA’s stamp of approval, The Martian flits between Watney’s Martian base, the ship in which his crew mates are returning home, and the offices and control rooms on Earth where everybody is frantically trying to do the right thing, as their chances of saving Watney narrow to a point.
An unashamed advertisement for NASA’s plans for Mars, and a celebration of its crewed programme’s rebirth after the Challenger disaster in 1986, The Martian already feels slightly dated. But its invention and good humour are timeless.
When a cloud of debris travelling faster than a speeding bullet collides with the space shuttle, mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) must make their way across gulfs of space on dwindling supplies of air and propellant in search of a vehicle that will take them home; soon the debris cloud will return on its inexorable orbit.
As likely to scare someone off a space career as inspire them to pursue one, Gravity is premised on the idea that low Earth orbit is so crowded with hardware and discarded junk that a collision could initiate a chain reaction known as the Kessler syndrome, and destroy every satellite.
For all that, Gravity is less a science fiction film than a survival film (think Open Water or Touching the Void, both from 2003), and is the last place you would go for a lesson in orbital mechanics. While not quite as egregiously silly as 2019’s Ad Astra (in which Brad Pitt literally leaps through Saturn’s ice rings, using a hatch-cover for an umbrella) Gravity is no 2001, no Apollo 13, no First Man.
But while accuracy is one thing; truth is quite another. With Gravity, director Cuarón triumphantly realised his ambition to make the first truly weightless-seeming film, conveying the environment and sensation of zero gravity more powerfully, immediately (and, yes, accurately) than any film-maker, before or since.
October Sky (1999)
NASA engineer Homer H. Hickam Jr.’s autobiography provided the seed for this drama about a teenager coming of age at the dawn of the space race. A 17-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal (he was still taking school classes during the filming) plays Homer, a high school student in Coalwood, West Virginia, when, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite.
Inspired by the Soviet achievement, and encouraged by his teacher (Laura Dern), Homer and his fellow “rocket boys” start building their own homemade missiles. Chris Cooper finds gold in the somewhat thankless role of Homer’s father, conscientiously pouring cold water on his son’s dreams: what’s wrong with working in the local coal mine, he’d like to know?
Director Joe Johnston is better known for his rather more gung-ho approaches to heroism and rocket flight. (1991’s Rocketeer is a cult classic; Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) needs no introduction here.)
October Sky is an altogether more contained achievement: the touching story of imagination awakened by the possibilities of rocketry, space travel, and a world beyond Earth.
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