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Davis, California

Monday, June 24, 2024

At The Crossroads: The Narrow Space Between Science and Film


Space exploration and film have historically inspired and promoted one another

In honor of World Space Week and the success of the Rosetta Mission on Sept. 30 — which saw a European probe land on a comet — I’m naturally turning this column’s attention to one of the most exciting scientific eras in history: the Space Age.

Growing up in Bakersfield, a city that champions the worst air pollution in the nation, I never acquired a true appreciation for the brilliance of a clear night sky. I could count more pregnant freshmen at my high school than stars in the sky. Instead, I looked to movies to admire the incomprehensible beauty of outer space.

Film and space have enjoyed a special relationship since the dawn of cinema. The world’s first blockbuster, the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, follows a group of astronomists as they journey to the moon and — in true colonial fashion — slaughter all its inhabitants.

With the onset of the Space Race in the 50’s and 60’s, the function of space movies expanded tremendously. The Space Age triggered a creative avalanche as filmmakers scrambled to showcase exhilarating new technology.

But space films shifted away from mere entertainment and attempted to capture the public’s political, spiritual and moral anxieties associated with the final frontier.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released a year before the Space Race began, features brainwashing aliens that exemplify Americans’ paranoia over encroaching communist ideas. Several other films, such as Forbidden Planet and Invaders from Mars, also use the nation’s obsession with space to express the political atmosphere in the Cold War.

Space films also began to tackle philosophical issues, like the insignificance of humans in relation to the universe. The Planet of the Apes’ disquieting final reveal — that the ape-dominated planet is actually Earth in the future — criticizes humankind’s egotistical belief in our lasting place in the cosmos. It presents dominant concerns of the era, like whether our delusions of grandeur and entitled engagement with space will somehow prompt our downfall.

The culmination of the Space Race in art was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Working with NASA to produce a scientifically-accurate depiction of space travel, Kubrick allowed science to amaze and inspire viewers. Unlike The Planet of the Apes, 2001 emphasizes that humans are destined for advancement among the stars due to our perpetual need for renewal and growth.

But through HAL, the traitorous computer program, Kubrick still warns against the perils of science to stress the complex relationship between philosophy and science and perhaps to prevent future travelers from falling into the same dangers.

Space movies declined in popularity for years, but a recent resurgence of imaginative and, most importantly, optimistic films has swept theaters.

Take The Martian, Ridley Scott’s 2015 realist science fiction flick based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name. In order to rescue Mark Watney (a stranded astronaut) from Mars, NASA and the China National Space Administration work together, ultimately accomplishing an incredible feat. It’s no wonder that NASA, amid its dwindling government funding, worked alongside Scott to craft an accurate space movie with a positive message.

Other recent high-grossing blockbusters have reignited a fervor for space. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity astounds with its majestic, spellbinding cinematography, while Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar entwines astonishing scientific theories with philosophy, love and faith. It also employs an interesting twist on the space genre: space exploration that is critical for humanity due to the environmental devastation on our own planet.

With funding for space programs declining in the U.S. but rising globally, other countries are predicted to surpass the U.S. in space activity. Promoting science in film can generate public interest, government funding and further creative breakthroughs. Many scientists today consider entertainment media one of the major influencing factors in their own scientific interest.

While part of me just wants to see more of Matt Damon in a spacesuit, my desire for more space films mainly resides in my hope for a public demand for a larger space budget — a feat that I believe can be achieved with the collaboration of scientists and filmmakers.


Written by: Taryn DeOilers — tldeoilers@ucdavis.edu


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