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A Guide to Space Travel in Cinema

by Cassie Ochoa

As long as cinema has been around, so has the desire to go to space. While actual space travel was quite far off, cinema has been exploring space since the beginning. One of the first short films,  La lune à un mètre/The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) helps catch the mystical beauty of the moon in the sky. The fascination of space travel carried over from literature, and the next major film adapted from two Jules Verne novels proved to be very financially successful. Le Voyage dans la Lune/A Trip to the Moon (1902) deals with six astronomers who use a cannon to go to the moon. On the moon’s surface they come across a race of aliens, overthrow the king of the aliens, and return home with samples.  Both of these silent films were done by Georges Méliès, one of the original film directors and one of the most iconic early filmmakers.


As humankind got closer to the moon, audiences became less interested in visiting it and started looking more towards the future. Project Moonbase (1953) is set in the 1970’s and looks towards colonization of the moon, while Forbidden Planet (1956) dealt with inter-dimensional travel. Most notably, this marks the rise of films that have visitors of other planets coming into contact with humans. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) are three such films that have a potential threat coming to Earth and Earthlings fighting against the invaders. All of these films deal with the complicated nature of humanity in the face of extremes, particularly their interactions with the unknown. Most infamously The Day the Earth Stood Still ends with the alien condemning the hostility of the human race.


Once man reached the depths of outer space, films used the dark void as a reflection upon humanity. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Countdown (1969), and Solaris (1972) all deal with humans and the cost of space travel. Countdown deals with the pressures and extremes of the race to the moon, while Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey deal with the problems of isolation from humanity. Even a revisit to the aliens against humans plot with Alien (1979) still touches upon the fear of isolation, the fear of distance from civilization and the ultimate fear of the cost of human life in the progression of knowledge. However there was a lighter, optimistic side to the journey of space travel. Star Wars (1977), Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979), and Flash Gordon (1980) blend a sense of humor with the more upbeat and optimistic view of colonization of space. While there are inherent problems, it paints a far less bleak picture of space travel and humans’ interactions with what is out there. For every sci-fi film that paints a darkness to space, there was always a light.


So where is space travel going now? As audiences got more familiar with space and the realistic threats, the fears became less of the unknown and more of the unpredictable. Apollo 13 (1995), Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), and Space Cowboys (2000) deal with humans against uncontrollable elements. The themes of isolationism and reflection upon the human existence still persist with films such as Sunshine (2007), Moon (2009),Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015). There’s also the reintroduction of humor and brightness involved again with films such as Serenity (2005) Treasure Planet (2002), as well as Star Trek and Star Wars getting continuations and bringing back the original sense of exploration of far off lands. Space films also get referential with Spaceballs (1987), Mars Attacks! (1996), and Galaxy Quest (1999). Based on some recently announced titles such as Life (2017), continuations of the Alien series, and adaptation of visual media such as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), the future of space travel looks about as diverse as ever.

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