A new crop of science-fiction films draw inspiration from real space

Two years before the first space shuttle took flight, the winged orbiter flew off the silver screen as part of the ongoing adventures of a fictional British Secret Service agent.

Moonraker, the 1979 installment in the James Bond franchise, may not have gotten all, or even most of the details right about the United States’ then-new space transportation system, but it gave moviegoers an introduction to the launch vehicle that would define the nation’s human spaceflight program for the next three decades.

Now, five years after the shuttle’s retirement, Hollywood is again giving the public multiple glimpses at what the next era of spaceflight may look like.

Building off the successes of 2013’s Gravity, 2014’s Interstellar and last year’s box office hit, The Martian, a new crop of space-themed films are presenting a realistic, or at least feasible, vision for how humankind might leave the planet. In doing so, they are exploring the challenges that are just now beginning to be considered by the engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs who could make them a reality.

“For those of us who really love popular culture around space themes, it is a lot of fun,” says Margaret Weitekamp, the curator for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight Collection. “As Hollywood does respond to box office success, it means you have more creative minds and energy looking at space topics and thinking about how they might develop those.”

From the Earth to Mars (and Beyond)

Whereas the past three years have each had one movie based in either engineering or scientific reality, this year there are no fewer than three that are doing the same.

“We are seeing more films and more scripts that are along the lines of feasible fiction as opposed to outright fantasy,” says Bob Jacobs, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for communications at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’d like to think there is something cultural going on in that filmmakers see that more realistictype of exploration films can be successful.”

In Approaching the Unknown, released in early June, actor Mark Strong stars as William Stanaforth, an astronaut embarking on a one-way, solo flight to Mars. Like Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian, Stanaforth’s mission doesn’t go as planned and he is forced to apply engineering solutions to keep himself alive.

The Space Between Us reverses that journey, following a teenage boy (Asa Butterfield) who was unexpectedly born on Mars and who sets out to explore Earth while also discovering love with a girl (Britt Robertson) he met online. The film, which is set for an Aug. 19 release, also marks the onscreen debut of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser commercial crew vehicle.

Set further out in the future, Passengers stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as members of an interstellar spacecraft who prematurely awake on their journey to a distant colony planet. Although the scenario relies more on science fiction than fact, the movie, which is coming out in December, shows cryosleep chambers that are now in its very early stages of development at NASA.

“The technology has grown to the point that it is easier for directors and filmmakers to portray the realities of space exploration. I think that contributes to the types of stories that you see. They are grounded in some way in basic scientific and physical principles,” said Jacobs.

Gravity (2013), Intersteller (2014) and The Martian (2015) found box office success with a mix of engineering and scientific reality; the major Hollywood studios are releasing no fewer than three movies in 2016 — Approaching the Unknown, Passengers and The Space Between Us — that follow a similar blueprint.

Gravity (2013), Intersteller (2014) and The Martian (2015) found box office success with a mix of engineering and scientific reality; the major Hollywood studios are releasing no fewer than three movies in 2016 — Approaching the Unknown, Passengers and The Space Between Us — that follow a similar blueprint.

‘Feasible fiction’

“Filmmakers now have tools that they didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago to allow them to do space-themed narratives in ways that are visually compelling and believable, and that allows them to move in a more believable direction,” said Weitekamp. “I think for a long time they have lacked the ability to realistically show the confined spaces of spaceflight so that they didn’t look tiny and cramped and uncompelling.”

In Gravity, for example, director Alfonso Caurón was able to recreate and manipulate real spacecraft — as well as space itself — completely digitally, such that the only real thing on the screen was Sandra Bullock, and even then, sometimes only her face. In The Martian, Ridley Scott employed commercial off-the-shelf GoPro cameras to capture interior scenes in much the same way they are used to film real-life adventures — even by Russian cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station.

Motion capture, advanced computer graphics and 3D cameras though, are only part of the reason why realistic spaceflight has become richer fodder for filmmakers. With more than 50 years of actual space exploration to draw upon, directors are now able to pull from what the audience has already seen NASA accomplish and then build upon it.

“I think some of it has to do with a certain maturity in having creative storytellers, visual storytellers who have grown up with the successes of the space shuttle program, who have come to age in an era when the International Space Station has been operating continuously, occupied by astronauts, since the year 2000,” explained Weitekamp. “It then fires their imagination to think about other scenarios that take those contexts seriously and grapple with the physics or biology or politics.”

“In a lot of previous science fiction and science fantasy movies, it is about the drama of the story, you just take everything else for granted,” Jacobs said. “Eating is for granted, gravity is for granted, things like showers and restroom facilities are for granted. But in reality, those are all things you have to address, on top of the science and technology and actual mission objectives.

“That is why I use the words ‘feasible fiction,’” he noted. “It is not real, but you could see how they get there.”

Art Imitating Life, Life Inspiring Art

Of course, this is not the first time in history that Hollywood has sought to show what spaceflight might be like, based on the understandings of the time.

“[Today’s films] are an interesting throwback in some ways to the kind of speculative science fiction, the speculative non-fiction of the 1950s, when you had people who really were thinking seriously about what spaceflight could be and then feeding that into popular culture,” observed Weitekamp.

Jacobs agreed.

“It is not as different than what you saw in the early science fiction and science fantasy films of the 40s and 50s,” he said. “It was an extrapolation of what people thought would be possible someday. Now that we are in the realm of ‘someday,’ now you’re taking that next step, that next leap into what could be possible.”

“It is this interesting circle of science fiction and technical realities helping to push each other,” said Jacobs.

Perhaps that is best seen in the arena of commercial spaceflight, where entrepreneurs Elon Musk of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic have evoked past science fiction to describe their company’s spaceflight goals.

“I think the folks who are making these movies are trying to tap into some of the excitement that they see in commercial spaceflight, where people are enthusiastic about the idea of being able to pay for their own suborbital flight into space, where NASA is moving into more of these public-private partnerships and where you might have an invigorated space industry on more than just the defense side of the house,” said Weitekamp.

In Approaching the Unknown, released in early June, actor Mark Strong stars as William Stanaforth, an astronaut embarking on a one-way, solo flight to Mars. Like Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian, Stanaforth’s mission doesn’t go as planned and he is forced to apply engineering solutions to keep himself alive. Credit: "Approaching the Unknown" trailer

In Approaching the Unknown, released in early June, actor Mark Strong stars as William Stanaforth, an astronaut embarking on a one-way, solo flight to Mars. Like Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian, Stanaforth’s mission doesn’t go as planned and he is forced to apply engineering solutions to keep himself alive. Credit: “Approaching the Unknown” trailer

“If you listen to the interviews with the folks who are doing some of the work, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or Richard Branson, the best analogy that they — and sometimes even NASA — has of the visions that they would like to do often comes from popular culture, which can do in fiction and fantasy years ahead what people would like to do in reality years later,” she said. “So those visions, especially when they are popular, become something that the people who are doing the real thing have been inspired by and also use for their own purposes.”

In turn, the films serve to excite the next generation who may take up where today’s spaceflight entrepreneurs leave off, beginning the cycle again.

“Outside of the entertainment value, it is inspirational and aspirational,” said Jacobs. “It exposes new generations of explorers to what could be possible and that in turn inspires people to take up the technical disciplines and the science disciplines and they decide they want to work in that field. I think that is the value.”

SpaceNews contributor Robert Z. Pearlman is editor of collectSPACE.com