‘Space, the final frontier’ were iconic words spoken by Captain Kirk back in 1966, and still hold true today as human beings continue to look for life beyond Earth. The wonders and perils of space travel has always captured our imaginations, be it through the works of Jules Verne and HG Wells, the stories and mysteries surrounding the space race, or through the visual spectacle of cinema. Ever since Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune brought space exploration to life on celluloid, films and shows set in outer space have become crowd-pleasers.
To Infinity and Beyond
Stories set in outer space have never been far from our screens. In the early noughties we had the short-lived Firefly and its still-fantastic film sequel Serenity. After the crew in Star Trek: Voyager made it home (oops, spoiler), the franchise debuted a prequel show, Enterprise, that won few fans. However, the reboot of British science-fiction classic Battlestar Galactica landed just when we needed it most. And then came the series finale, which, even ardent fans haven’t figured out yet. And, on the big screen we returned to a galaxy far, far away with the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
But, forays through the cosmos were few and far between, with the occasional galactic romp like the sombre Moon and tonally vibrant (but divisive) Sunshine. These films and shows gracing our screens to varying degrees of success suggested audience interest in exploring life beyond our own was waning. Too many nerds had to look elsewhere to scratch that niggling space itch. Luckily, the tide appears to be turning.
Following the prolonged lull in popular shows and films featuring the cosmos, it seems Hollywood has again set its sights on interstellar stories, either in galaxies far, far away, or just off the (space) coast of our destroyed planet.
Filling the Void
Science-fiction films are back to being annual summer blockbusters, a trend many believe began with Gravity, the Sandra Bullock-starrer that delighted with its practical effects and human-interest story. Ever since, we have been introduced to at least one action-packed, philosophically-challenging cosmic film per year: from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the uneven but twist-ridden Life, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian, and the return of the Alien franchise (as a prequel, or is it a reboot, who even cares any more). If you want to escape from Earth, a new two-hour film isn’t far away. To top it all, we even get a Star Wars film every year!
A number of science-fiction shows set in space have also cropped up, such as Killjoys, which has been renewed for another season, and The Expanse, the adaptation of the books that continues to capture the collective imaginations of even the most reluctant science-fiction viewer. Now Netflix is suffusing the Star Trek franchise with new life – Star Trek: Discovery, back after the mid-season break, will continue Michael Burnham’s journey of atoning for the war against the Klingons that she started.
But it isn’t only science-fiction cinema heading to space; nowadays the absurdest characters are landing up there. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, once afraid to introduce Thor, its alien Norse god, into the world of man, successfully launched the Guardians of the Galaxy films to much applause and box office success. Without a doubt, GOTG’s success influenced Taika Waititi, heretofore an indie film director, to embrace Thor’s origins and set the majority of Thor: Ragnarok in space, on different planets and fighting alongside as many weird aliens as he could fit on screen. Ragnarok is now Marvel’s best rated film to date and its science-fiction vision played a huge part in generating that rating.
DCTV started off with the non-powered Green Arrow, and has now branched out to include metahumans on The Flash and aliens in Supergirl. Six years ago, none of us would have expected to see Oliver Queen, John Diggle and Felicity Smoak fighting aliens, but that is already old news.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which dappled in inter-planetary conflicts and alien possession, has sent its team to the future in season 5, where humans are slaves to the alien Kree and the Earth is but a sliver of its former self, and without a doubt, the season so far is its most entertaining and thought-provoking yet.
Even Black Mirror’s season 4 opening salvo began in space, harking back to a simpler, cheesier age of the 1960s Star Trek. All we need now is for aliens to abduct Bruce Wayne on Fox’s Gotham, and the space age will have reached its cinematic peak.
Through the Looking Glass
Space technology, astronomy and even NASA have all become accessible thanks to social media. The workings of life aboard a shuttle is live-streamed to mere mortals by astronauts in between space walks and mini space concerts. This ready visual medium normalises science and science-fact, allowing previously escapist cinematic spectacles to dig deeper with their scripts rather than just relying on stupefying audiences with amazing spatial landscapes.
Much of the science-fiction of the 21st century has been vested in analysing human beings and the human psyche — arguably all fiction, especially science-fiction and fantasy, has historically transplanted the plight of humans and the human experience to alien planets and situations — but in cinema today we see less of the wonderment of interstellar marvels than we do straight-forward reflections of societies as it is and how it could be.
In fact, the more screen time spent showcasing these science-fiction miracles, the less time is left for building the characters and their dynamics. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story went straight into introducing its characters and the real-world fight they had on their hands, but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was too busy showing off its CGI world to cohesively develop its narrative or the importance of its characters’ histories.
Not all films and shows follow the same pattern, but shorter attention spans and a general understanding of how film technology works, means that practical effects and pragmatic stories are more likely to amaze audiences.
If Elon Musk had his way, half the population of Earth would be colonising another planet. But we are not there yet. We still need to rely on Hollywood and entertainment media to imagine life off-planet. In 2018, more shows exploring the cosmos are scheduled to land on our screens. A Stargate prequel has been greenlit, while DCTV will be expanding with the addition of Syfy’s Krypton.
And, alongside a host of other space films, the highlight of the year will take place this summer with the MCU event all fans have been waiting for, Avengers: Infinity War. Space, it seems, has finally gone mainstream.
Which new show/film set in outer space are you looking forward to?