4 Space Films to Watch After Gravity: Bringing life to lifelessness
Total isolation with only a thin sheet of metal separating an oasis from the dark abyss known as space. Astronauts are in many ways reminiscent of the explorers of old. Braving the farthest reaches of the unknown despite immense peril and an almost complete absence of the possibility of rescue should disaster strike. However the main dividing point between explorers and astronauts is that space is big – REALLY big. Human beings can barely begin to comprehend the vast enormity of space. If you think sailing across the Atlantic with 15th century technology seemed perilous, imagine having to swim that same distance whilst being tailed by a school of great white sharks – this is but a fraction of the peril astronauts encounter.
In short, space is dangerous, yet this constant vulnerability and suffocating isolation breeds fascinating films – films that delve into the deepest recesses of the human condition. Alfonso Cuaron’s eerie sci-fi thriller Gravity is Hollywood’s latest film to explore the extremely treacherous void of space, where a single speck of paint whizzing at thousands of kilometers per hour could tear a person in half. You can read our review for Gravity here, but if you can’t get enough of the cold purity of space, these are 4 other space films that can chill your blood or warm your heart in equal measure. “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego.”
4. Moon (2009)
A multifaceted psychological sci-fi centered on Sam Bell, a man serving a three-year contract on the tiny Selene base on the surface of the moon completely alone. His straightforward assignment to harvest Helium-3 from the lunar surface takes a chilling, ominous turn when just as the burden of isolation starts to smother him, Sam survives a planned ‘accident’ meant to end his life only to discover a clone of himself has been awakened to take his place.
Moon creates a contrast between fantasy and reality. It’s natural to assume being stationed on the Moon would provide an exciting, almost romantic experience. Of the many billions of human’s that have lived, worked and died entirely on Earth, only 12 have ever set foot on the Moon. For Sam Bell however, the Moon became a lifeless orbiting rock. The vast impenetrable expanse of space only serving as a bitter reminder of the sheer astronomical distance separating him and his family, his beautiful wife Tess and a daughter he’s yet to meet.
Though technically not set in space, the bleak, haunting, distant Moon might as well be light-years away from home after three years without so much as a handshake from another human being. What’s most interesting about this film however is the dynamic between the two Sam Bell’s as they come to grips with the adverse situation forced upon them. We see two sides of the same character, one humbled and enlightened by his experience at the Selene moon base, the other brash and aggressive with little patience or appreciation for simple pleasures (and small model towns). The effect of isolation is profoundly apparent in this film, but the terrifying abyss of space merely serves as the backdrop for a deep, emotional narrative that demands to be experienced and doesn’t let up for a moment right up until the point when the end credits have finished rolling and the cleaning staff are bitterly asking you to leave the cinema.
3. WALL-E (2008)
Including Pixar’s animated instant-classic in a list relevant to a tense thriller like Gravity may seem as if it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, but don’t panic, there is a point to be made. Overshadowing almost every space film is the setting’s desolation and it’s effect on the characters. In Moon, Sam Bell’s self-imposed isolation created a canvas for him to grow as a human being. In WALL-E, the little robot protagonist’s solitude on Earth leads to an immense sense of loneliness, but traveling into space with a high-tech new companion known as EVE leads to a fulfillment never experienced in this robots 700 year existence. Life is brought to lifelessness. Not only is the barren nothingness of space filled with wonder and awe, but the two robotic central characters are transformed in equal measure. Their emotions are as starkly pure as any human being.
In many ways, outer space is simply a representation of the confinement and loneliness that has existed in the heart of every human being since the beginning of our entire species; the void within us reflected by the literal void that exists outside the safety of our atmosphere. How fascinating then, that WALL-E’s journey into the void completely contradicts our general perception of this terrifying abyss. He doesn’t fear the strange physical laws of space but embraces them with a charming playfulness. This story, a robot’s story, invigorates the human’s on board the Axiom who’ve become blobs of laziness and apathy as a result of centuries of luxury. As deeply perilous as his journey becomes, WALL-E never becomes the victim of hopelessness as he has already found what he was looking for all along. No longer stuck on a ruined Earth but dancing through the night with EVE. At last, he was no longer alone.
2. Alien (1979)
Trapped on an enormously foreboding spacecraft with the deadliest creature imaginable, armed with almost no effective means of defense. Could there be any worse situation? Space not only has the ability to create a sickening sense of solitude, but also a strangling immobility. If something goes wrong, there is literally NO WHERE to go. You’d be better off stuck on a desert island surrounded by water, at least then there is a very, very slight chance you’d survive if you swam for your life. Leaving a spaceship and stepping out into the vacuum however means certain death.
In Alien, Ridley Scott’s visionary sci-fi horror masterpiece, the crew of the Nostromo is by no means composed of soldiers, but simply navigators, pilots and engineers. Everything that can go wrong does when an unidentified creature jumps out of an egg onto the face of Executive Officer Kane. The alien bursts forth from his chest, and next thing you know has rapidly evolved and the crew are fighting for survival (arguably the most brutal and desperate kind of struggle). Everything in this film is set up to unsettle, from the deforming acid blood of the Alien to the chillingly cold voice of the computer’s self-destruct count down. Nowhere is safe for the crew of the Nostromo; The unlikely heroin, Ripley strains to cling to life the entire time.
Unlike its more action-orientated sequel, the original Alien is a vexing poem of slow building suspense and sheer, brutal vulnerability. Ripley is left at the mercy of this creature just as surely as protagonists of Gravity are at the mercy of space. In both films there is an overwhelming sense that it could all go terribly wrong with slightest of errors. It reminds us of the fragility of our own world, but ironically offers an escape through witnessing characters experiencing the same troubles but on a grander scale. Even a minor mistake at a new job can lead to unemployment and financial instability. Ripley experiences the same crippling anxiety, only with far more dire consequences.
1. Apollo 13 (1995)
Far more realistic than other films discussed in this article, Apollo 13 exists light-years away from the imaginative galaxy of science fiction, telling the historical tale of a moon-landing mission gone terribly wrong. The unfortunate three-man crew of the Apollo 13 mission suffers a constant battle with the vacuum of space after an explosion depletes the spacecraft of almost its entire supply of oxygen and electrical power. With their dreams of walking on the moon shattered, this mission becomes an endeavor to just bring the crew back to Earth safely.
The unforgiving nature of spaceflight has never been so apparent than it was in this film. Technical malfunctions, loss of oxygen supply, exposure to radiation are all very real dangers. Outside Earth’s precious embrace even seemingly tiny errors can lead to total disaster . Slight variations in direction by as little as one degree can lead to overshooting the Earth and being destined to drift through space for eternity. In Apollo 13 we feel every moment of tension and uncertainty. These men are not at the mercy of nature, but of nothingness.
On Earth we too are drifting through the colossal expanse of space every second of every day. Our own stories play out on this giant blue spacecraft just as compellingly (or more so) as in any space-film, no matter how uplifting or terrifying. We orbit the Sun as our solar system travels through the Milky Way, but at the heart of all the dreadful vastness that surrounds us is the stories we tell and the characters we encounter. Maybe our obsession with space films simply stems from out desire to understand the unknown, to make sense of the uncompromisable so we are no longer afraid. In space, no one can hear you scream, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to say.
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