Shooting for the stars: the best films about outer space
Few human endeavours have matched the grandeur and mystique of the early Nasa space missions, which caught the world's imagination and sparked a technological gold rush that ultimately led to personal computers, smartphones, social media and the internet. But in Damien Chazelle's brilliant new film, First Man, we discover that the reality of early space travel was not quite so glamorous.
Inflamed by Cold War rivalries, and backed by a hefty federal budget, the Nasa team drove relentlessly towards the lofty goal of a manned Moon landing, but in First Man it becomes evident that they often took shortcuts and were making it up as they went along. They had no right to succeed in getting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on to the lunar surface as early as 1969, but that success would come at a cost.
Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong, whose coolness in a crisis marks him out as the best of the Nasa pilots. Armstrong signed up with Nasa in 1962 and quickly joined the elite who would fly the early Apollo missions. But doing so was a risky business: two years before the Moon mission, three of Armstrong's colleagues were killed by an explosion in a pre-launch test.
In First Man, the craft that the astronauts board look like tinfoil sculptures held together with glue, and do not inspire confidence. But after a close shave himself, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off from Cape Canaveral on their historic mission to the Moon. All of this is brilliantly captured by Chazelle's film, which co-stars Claire Foy as Janet Shearon, Armstrong's first wife, who will have to cope with the psychological after-effects of those pioneering journeys into space.
The Apollo missions changed the way Hollywood thought about space travel. Before the programme started, space was a mysterious, treacherous place packed with loitering extraterrestrial invaders. But even scarier than that was the silence, the vastness, the emptiness, and Armstrong's walk across a dusty, barren rock revealed a terrifying wasteland, and made us wonder whether our green and fertile Earth might be the only habitable planet in a huge and silent universe.
Scary thoughts, and the best space travel films have emphasised this existential terror. I'm thinking here not of wild fantasies like Star Wars, but of movies that honestly tried to imagine the experience of actual space travel, from the earliest Nasa experiments to gritty speculations about how interplanetary travel might be achieved in the near future. And of course any conversation about space movies has to start with 2001.
Released a year before Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking film considered the existential implications of our experiments in space. Created in collaboration with sci-fi guru Arthur C Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey started with a prehistoric fight between tribes that ends when one of them discovers how to use a bone as a weapon.
That bone is thrown triumphantly into the air and, in one of cinema's most famous match cuts, transforms as it twirls into a 21st century space station orbiting above the Earth. Mankind has figured out how to travel long distances through space, and a manned mission is setting out for Jupiter. The scientists on board discuss the finer points of their mission with the ship's honey-voiced computer, Hal, who will ultimately rise against the humans and succumb to a form of insanity. Kubrick's film ended with a plunge through space and time and a mind-boggling existential conundrum. The pot-smoking countercultural mob went mad for it.
One could argue, though, that Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris is in its own way just as good a film. Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (who was very churlish about the movie), the 1972 film explored a theme that would recur frequently: that no matter how far we venture into space, humans bring their problems with them. When a psychologist called Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to a remote space station which has been studying an oceanic planet called Solaris, he's surprised when he glimpses people on board who are not members of the crew. It seems the planet has psychoactive properties that make human memories materialise, and Kelvin doesn't know how to feel when his dead wife appears in bed beside him. Intense and slow-moving, Solaris grips me every time I watch it, and is a kind of zero-gravity ghost story. A 2002 Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney remake should be avoided.
It is entirely possible that space travel will become a humdrum blue-collar job, and that idea was one of the cleverest things about Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic, Alien. The crew of the Nostromo are gliding slowly home from a deep-space mission when they're woken from cryogenic sleep by the ship's computer to investigate a distress signal from a stormy planet.
The engineers and mechanics complain about the food and wonder if this detour will result in extra pay, and though all such concerns would shortly be moot, the idea of space travel being tedious and mundane was a fascinating one.
In space, Alien's tagline went, no one can hear you scream, but what if we'd never been in space at all? There are crackpot theorists in the US and elsewhere who maintain that the Apollo 11 Moon landings were a hoax, and that idea was obliquely explored in Capricorn One, a 1977 conspiracy fantasy about a mission to Mars.
There's great hoo-ha around the launch pad when Capricorn One, the first manned mission to the red planet, roars into the skies, but little do the watching public know that the rocket is empty. A last-minute check revealed that the life-support systems were faulty, and would have resulted in the deaths of all on-board. But face must be saved, and now the three astronauts are rushed in secrecy to a TV studio where the Martian landings will be faked.
In Ridley Scott's 2015 film The Martian, a group of scientists actually made it, and were just completing a series of experiments on the surface when a massive storm hit. A botanist called Mark Watney (Matt Damon) goes missing and wakes to find that his crew-mates, assuming he was dead, have left without him. And so, with limited resources but incredible ingenuity, Mark has to figure out a way to survive on the pitiless planet and let the others know he's still alive. It's a very clever film, and pointed out how much we coddled Earth dwellers take for granted.
First Man is not the first film to dramatise the space programme, indeed The Right Stuff covered similar territory way back in 1983. Philip Kaufman's film went back to the post-war aeronautical research that led to the pioneering Project Mercury programme, Apollo's precursor. Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn and the late Sam Shepard played brave aviators who agreed to be shot into orbit in flimsy metal tubes for the sake of progress, and though The Right Stuff bombed at the box office, it's a pretty decent film.
As, indeed, is Apollo 13, Ron Howard's gripping 1995 thriller based on the ill-fated 1970 Nasa lunar mission. Tom Hanks starred as Jim Lovell, a Nasa Commander who must use all his experience when an on-board explosion cuts the electric power, devastates the oxygen supply and forces the pilot to attempt a potentially disastrous ad-hoc re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. Yet again, it demonstrated how incredibly brave those early Nasa astronauts were.
For me, though, the film that best caught the terror of space was Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's stunning 2013 thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts who are enjoying a spacewalk when their orbiting Shuttle is struck and destroyed by a storm of debris, leaving them helplessly drifting.
The two astronauts chatter endlessly as they bob in the darkness, as though their words will fill the emptiness around them. Floating miles above our tiny, sun-kissed planet, they bask in a glorious panoramic view that men were never meant to see: but if they turn away from Earth for a moment, how terrifying it must feel to be confronted by the endless blackness of space.