Going Gentle into that Good Night: Space Exploration in Cinema




With Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar rocketing into cinema David O’Donoghue takes a look at how space has been explored in classic sci-fi films of yesteryear and how we look upon its inky expanse as a cinematic image and symbol in more modern movies.


Space, the final frontier. Well, not quite so when it comes to movies. Once human beings got a hang of this film thing we got right to speculating about space, from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902 right up to the science serials of the 1950s and sci-fi special effects extravaganzas of today. Space and the exploration of its vast and mysterious expanse has been a potent cinematic symbol since film first emerged from the primordial soup of flickering images and whirring projectors. I was thinking about this history when I went to see Christopher Nolan’s newest sci-fi epic Interstellar recently. Packed with all the bombast and mystery with which Nolan has endeared himself to so many, the film manages to seem both brand, spanking new, with its shiny and dazzling special effects, as well as endearingly old fashioned, with its many nods to sci-fi epics of the past. In this way, I figured that Insterstellar might be a good jumping off point to discover how space was explored in the classic sci-fi films of yesteryear and how we look upon its inky expanse as a cinematic image and symbol in today’s theatres. To do so, I’ll be looking at two sci-fi classics and two modern, celebrated sci-fi films that deal with space and see what makes them tick and how Interstellar represents these differing approaches to science fiction.



2001:A Space Odyssey

This is the big one. Kubrick’s carefully constructed science fiction masterpiece, one of the most acclaimed, analysed and celebrated films of all time, looms large over any tale of space exploration. It would be remiss of me to say that Interstellar pays tribute to 2001 so much as it sacrifices itself upon the altar of Kubrick, with many of the images and ideas of Interstellar being direct reflections of Kubrick’s masterpiece. 2001 was fascinating not just for its stunning and revolutionary visuals and its arresting score but also the way in which it broke new cinematic ground in exploring ideas of rogue AI and lost missions into space that would become mainstays of space exploration on film and science fiction more generally. The most fascinating thing is the deft way in which Kubrick’s film takes science and turns it into a kind of existential mysticism. Kubrick’s film uses space and its exploration to talk about huge existential questions for the human race. The likes of: Where did we come from? How did we get here? What’s out there? Kubrick’s film uses the sweep and grandeur of space to create a sense of terrifying, profound awe at the mystery of the universe, not unlike a kind of religious devotion.




And of course, one can’t mention 2001 without Solaris in the same breath. Solaris is, much like most of Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, long, winding and contemplative. The film follows a psychologist who travels to a space station orbiting a faraway planet to monitor the health of the crew there and find out why their mission has stalled. While the film’s initial focus is inward, on the despondent and emotionally distant crew members on the station, it soon becomes outward, focusing on the strange, alien intelligence that seems to inhabit the plant Solaris below. This exploration of how we might interact with an alien intelligence and what it might tell us about ourselves as a species and the nature  of our society is part of the grand and sweeping vision of sci-fi. It wishes to make philosophical and metaphysical statements about human culture through images that are powerful and that can have universal resonance.




Duncan Jones’ quiet sci-fi sleeper hit from 2009 is a fairly neat encapsulation of a lot of modern sci-fi. Tight, small, intimate and introspective, this tale of a solitary Sam Rockwell mining Helium 3 on the moon accompanied only by a Kevin Spacey voiced AI is a haunting tale about what it means to be human. Not in a grand way that makes broad metaphysical statements about the purpose and impact of the human race as a whole, but talking about what it means to be and what it is that makes an individual. Its questions of the effects of loneliness on an individual and the nature of individual identity are hallmarks of much of modern science fiction, which looks at the vast expanse of outer space and uses it as a canvas through which to peer inward inside the human mind.




Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar sweeping orbital epic from last year, similarly upholds this modern tendency towards using space to explore the introspective and intimate relationships of human beings, as opposed to grand metaphysical questions. Gravity was essentially a two-man show, with the interaction between Clooney and Bullock (and later Bullock’s isolation) seeming all the more powerful in the vast emptiness of Cuaron’s expertly shot outer space. A moment of particular poignancy comes as Bullock, after floating adrift, manages to board a Chinese space station and communicate with a Chinese man. Although they cannot understand each other Bullock treasures this small scrap of human intimacy in the cold, unfeeling chasm of space. This is similar to a scene in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey receives messages spanning years from his children back home as he orbits a planet in another galaxy. This element of quiet intimacy crossing the vastness of space is endemic of the modern cinematic use of space exploration.

Science fiction films are, as all films are, ultimately about exploring ourselves. While the classics favoured using the grandeur and sweep of space to give us broad messages about metaphysics and human existence as a species, more recent science fiction films tend to use space exploration for an intimate and introspective look at human relationships and the interior life of individuals; like tiny flames of light growing bright as they flare up against the vast darkness of space and glowing gargantuan galaxies.

Interstellar, to its credit, attempts to fuse the two. It gives us the sweep and spectacle of space as well as being driven by a close examination of human love, intimacy and family bonds. This juggling act is not always perfect and balanced, but all three hours of the show represent some of the most admirable and ambitious science fiction in years.


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