The cinema is dark and cool, with sounds of rustling popcorn and the occasional cough breaking the hushed silence. On screen, a heavy, metallic door opens and an astronaut’s helmet pushes through, the face of its wearer obscured by dim light.
“Take care, Major. Be careful,” a voice cautions offscreen.
“Thanks for that,” comes the reply, in an unmistakeable Oklahoma drawl.
The astronaut turns to face the camera, and a beam of sunlight pans across his helmet to reveal the slightly weathered, well-known face of actor Brad Pitt. He draws a tinted visor over his helmet to block the glare and climbs down onto an impossibly big international space station, known as the Antenna.
From the row in front, an older man turns to the teenage boy next to him and whispers, “That’s George Clooney, right?”
“No, Dad. It’s Brad Pitt.”
“Oh. But weren’t they both in…?”
“That was Ocean’s Eleven.”
Sounds familiar? There’s a reason.
The film is Ad Astra, Hollywood’s latest sci-fi offering. But one can forgive the clueless father’s cinematic slip-up, because in 2013, George Clooney co-starred in Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi epic Gravity, in which he and Sandra Bullock are stranded in space and must fight for survival. Both Clooney and Bullock received critical acclaim for their performances and earned the biggest box-office hits of their careers, while Cuarón took away the Academy Award for Best Director among the film’s 10 nominations. Although a feat of technological achievement, – over 80 of the film’s 91-minutes is comprised entirely of special effects – dazzling visuals, and cinematic tension, Gravity was most notable for its stark portrayal of the human psyche confronted by seemingly-insurmountable odds. Grittier, more personal, and more scientifically accurate than ever before, Gravity broke the mould and ushered in a new era of sci-fi, with subsequent films in the genre dubbed part of the “Gravity Generation”.
Often closer to kitchen-sink-dramas, dystopian allegories like Lord of the Flies (1954), or realist tales of survival à la Robinson Crusoe (1719), films born of this Gravity-shift appear to use space as a backdrop or an afterthought more than a crucial point of difference. Whether drama, epic, thriller or romance, in the 2010s, films set in space are just that.
Almost always male, white, and portrayed by well-known, A-list actors, protagonists of this new type of sci-fi are often stoic loners, adrift in the immensity of space, battling their inner demons and exploring existential questions in their search for peace. Though sometimes grappling with the logistical complexities of time travel or the looming threat of Artificial Intelligence, these films share little of the camp or technicolor-idealism of their sci-fi forebears. Gone are the laser guns and chrome accessories, the weaponised space stations and close encounters. Not only do they aim to be deeper, more intense and thematically stripped back to the most personal and essential of subjects – identity, love, humanity – but their portrayal of both Earth and beyond are often devoid of optimism.
They may be set in a galaxy far, far, away, but they feel closer to home than ever.
Every year since 2013’s Gravity has seen the release of a film in the same vein, where confronting the self and personal conflicts takes precedence over any supernatural space peril. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014 sets Matthew McConaughey’s relationship with his daughter against a trip through time to find the key to humanity’s survival; The Martian (2015) depicts Matt Damon’s lone fight for survival on Mars; Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence fall in love in isolation aboard a spaceship in Passengers (2016); Jake Gyllenhaal wrestles with an Alien-esque organism in the claustrophobic and ruminative Life in 2017; and Damien Chazelle presents an intimate and unromantic re-imagining of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing in First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling.
Ad Astra (2019) is the latest in this string of post-Gravity space flicks, where aliens and intergalactic warfare give way to the psychological realism and interpersonal conflict seen in most serious Earth-bound dramas. In Ad Astra, astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) ventures to Mars in search of his long-lost father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) and a solution to a string of power surges threatening life in the solar system in an undefined ‘near future’. Lauded for its cinematography, sensitive exploration of father-son relationships, and Pitt’s minimalist performance, Ad Astra draws many parallels with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and the 1979 war epic Apocalypse Now. Some critics – like our confused theatregoer – compared it to Cuarón’s Gravity in its exploration of loneliness and the human condition.
This ‘realist’ approach to space in film is not exactly new practice. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) both probe their male protagonist’s existential conflicts and emotional depths, and Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) similarly features a solitary male protagonist fighting for survival and facing the enormity of the universe.
So, what has changed? What separates serious sci-fi of the 1960s and ’70s from that of the 2010s?
The differences lie in the political and cultural climates of today which shape what and how sci-fi films are made. While in the late ’60s and early ’70s space travel was still largely in its infancy, now advances in science and technology mean we know more than ever about what’s beyond Earth. Today’s frequent and highly developed space travel means depictions of space are more scientifically accurate and unromantic than ever before.
We no longer have to dream about what it’s like on Mars – many are already planning its colonisation.
In sci-fi of the 1960s and ’70s, philosophical conundrums explored through the metaphors of outer space and mysterious extra-terrestrial dangers could still exist alongside the more playful aspects of the genre: Wookies, robots, planetary overlords and spaceships traveling at light speed.
The Earth from which we launch ourselves to the ‘Final Frontier’ looked different then too. The terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ were only on the fringes of scientific debate until at least the mid-70s, with the publication of Wallace Smith Broecker’s paper on the issue. Douglas Trumbull’s eco-sci-fi Silent Running (1972) showed us a post-apocalyptic Earth where all plant life had become extinct, though at the time such a vision seemed like a far-off dream and its hopeful conclusion was almost endearing.
Today, the threats of irreversible climate change and human extinction are all-too real, internalised within protagonists’ blatant nihilism, existential conflicts or fraught parent-child relationships. Seen on a broader scale with the ubiquity of dystopian dramas, sparked by The Hunger Games in 2012, sci-fi has come to adopt the same pessimism.
Where classics like War of the Worlds (1953), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Alien (1979) warned of extra-terrestrial life colonising both human and Earth, space films post-Gravity turn the fear of the unknown inward. Protagonists are slowly isolated, left to confront personal traumas (as in Gravity and Interstellar) or questions of human procreation and our innate immorality (as in Claire Denis’ acclaimed indie High Life, ).
The aftershocks of this Gravity-shift are being felt in smaller scale productions too. Popular streaming service Netflix has produced original films and TV series with similarly gritty, cerebral takes on the genre: Orbiter 9 (2017), The Titan (2018), and Another Life (2019), to name a few. And while Netflix and similar platforms are taking strides to redress the lack of racial and gender diversity endemic to the genre, this shift is yet to be reflected at the box office.
The imaginative mythology of space and its inhabitants, rendered perhaps most richly in the definitive Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), is similarly missing from contemporary sci-fi. It’s no longer as necessary in a time where sci-fi is slowly being monopolised by Disney and its perpetual glut of superhero Babushka dolls. Add to that the colonisation of space in the 2010s by private enterprise and governments, and it follows that filmmakers would do away with intricate world-building and make-believe creatures to explore deeper themes. The personal and individual are what’s important; reduced to their barest essentials, space-films of today are even marketed on the shoulders of a single, bankable star. And the makers of these space films are often auteurs, promising viewers a nuanced interpretation of the sci-fi genre by the singular force of their reputations.
Though there have been attempts to revive the fun and camp exuberance of the genre, as with the bizarre cult favourite Jupiter Ascending (2015) and the extravagant Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), more cerebral and high calibre hits like Gravity and its ilk continue to dominate local box offices and highbrow film fests alike.
What will become of sci-fi in the years to come? It’s uncertain whether the genre will diversify and decentralise enough to keep us from confusing our Clooneys with our Pitts.
For now, the ‘space-film’, solidified by the Gravity-shift, looks here to stay.