June 12, 2021
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Space Film Construction Kit

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

(I feel guilty writing a completely frivolous essay, about neither the Trumpoid Object or the Coronavirus, for the first time in five years or so. )

I have, supposedly for relaxation, been on a nonstop diet of space movies for a few months now. This is a golden time for B movies set on stations and ships in the near future, in planetary space; special effects are inexpensive and the general quality of acting and art design rather high. There is more room than there was thirty years ago for intelligent scripting. This means that some of these movies achieve authentic genre status as science fiction, rather than being disguised westerns, fantasies or children's flicks. Shortchanging this idea, which I could explore at book length, for the sake of succinctness (and finishing this overdue essay in less than an hour): science fiction (i) has to have a reason to take place in space, by showing an event, and usually with it, a problem, which could never happen on Earth; (ii) has to have some kind of consistent rules, both of physics and of human behavior; (iii) must have a conclusion that occurs within these rules (not, a short-cut or cop-out especially tempting in science fiction, a deus ex machina).

Elsewhere, I have noted that there are two main reflexes or viewpoints in sci fi: The ordinary is extraordinary (live animals are now so rare on earth that finding a live rabbit is like seeing a unicorn--or, Omigod, that's not really a rabbit, aargh); and the extraordinary is ordinary (in the second year of our voyage, that view of the rings of Saturn out the porthole becomes really boring).

The space movies I have been watching mostly don't (by my choice) include aliens or monsters, or cute anthropomorphized robots. But they all are faithful to the Movie Rule, that once you have chosen your setting, you have limited the range of available incident. If your movie is set in a Western town, there will be dust and swinging wooden saloon doors. On a submarine, there will be the tense depth charging scene, and some genius of the crew will probably hit on the idea of putting a dead crewmate out the torpedo tube.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the Tropes these space movies share.

One or two characters will suit up and undertake a really difficult space-walk-- to repair something, or (in one film and one television episode I saw) to retrieve liquid oxygen to heat up and breathe within the ship.

Oh yes, the oxygen will threaten to run out.

Space stations and interplanetary ships will all have segments chained together and whirly parts.

It is very rarely explained what any of these are for-- but it certainly is hard to climb those chains in the space walk scene. Anyway, the art design is far more absorbing than the 1950's spaceship which resembled as well as inspired endless children's toys. These odd, nonaerodynamic ships began fifty years ago, in Kubrick's very innovative 2001.

Something scary will happen in the airlock. Someone will have to cut or explode their way back in to the ship. Someone who does not wish to leave the airlock (and is not suited up) will do so unexpectedly. The best airlock scene ever filmed (from the best sci fi television series ever) is Naomi in The Expanse escaping from captivity by exiting the airlock without a suit.

There will be explosive decompression in a hallway. Characters will fly and bounce down hallways, barely getting under closing barriers. We are used to a lot of these tropes from submarine and James Bond movies, so they may not pass the "reason to take place in space" requirement.

Orbits will decay. Space stations are always in ultimate danger of falling into the atmosphere. Ships less often, but then we have the "we have just enough fuel to.....but then...." Trope.

We will see respectable understandings of fuel, orbits and gravity. In Star Trek and Star Wars style fantasies, a ship can fly anywhere the way you can drive your car anywhere in New York City and environs.IRL, even when eroding tiles were spotted on the Columbia, flying it to the International Space Station was not an option. Apropos of the Meta-Rule I stated in the first para, that SF movies should have and obey rules, more adroit films have some understanding of the interaction of limited resources of air and fuel, and the availability or not of trajectories and orbits based on the relative positioning of Earth, moon, planets and other spacecraft.

Similarly, some films win my respect immediately (as 2001 did everyone's) with genuine portrayals of free fall, where everyone in a large bridge or bay is floating at any conceivable angle to one another. In the most well-thought out and enjoyable renditions, the crew has learned to move through rooms and hallways in free fall cleverly, adroitly and sometime quite beautifully, as well as to do interesting things with food, tools, etc. In the worst of these movies (due to budgetary restrictions or lack of imagination) gravity constrains people where it shouldn't (for example, spacewalk scenes where characters are visibly struggling to climb "up" the chains betwen spaceship segments-- if we are seeing "artificial gravity" produced by the spin of large structures, that should be mentioned). On a spacewalk, when someone loses a screwdriver or other critical tool, I am not certain why it flies away from the ship, when the same tool, released in the cargo bay, will pleasantly hover until picked up again. This may have to do with some rule of physics I don't understand, but more likely is a borrowing from war and suspense films in which the commando, defusing the Nazi bomb while dangling from the bridge by a cable, also drops the screwdriver.

Corpses will float head downwards. This is a horror-movie use of the lack of gravity, borrowed from the trope where the missing team member is found strung upside down in a closet.

We may recycle other trite horror movie Tropes. Sci fi with monsters, such as the Alien series, is of course simply Horror in Space. I am intrigued by a genre of films, represented by Europa Report, in which well-worn horror tropes are used in a "worlds of wonder" setting-- the filmmaker is trying to have it both ways. Europa is a forbidding environment but there is no cliched "ancient evil", like the indigenous race coming back to life to chant and beat drums in Ghosts of Mars. It is a beautiful, harsh place like the Arctic-- and yet the view of the life form the crew discovers is doled out to us, exactly like a movie monster, where we get our best view of it just as the last survivor dies at the end.

There will be Epistemic Reveals. There is a genre of "you think you're on Earth, but you're not" movies (Pandorum, and the recent and excellent Oxygen), and of "you think you're in space, but you're not" (Ascension, Orbiter 9), with, for 50 Bonus Points, "you don't know who you are and have to recover your identity".

We learn about our humanity from non-anthropomorphic robots. Some of the best of these are in quite old movies-- Silent Running and Saturn Three. On the other hand, anthropomorphized robots harm some attempts at hard science fiction (Supernova)--and the cuter they are, the worse the damage.

The crew will be diverse but rather trite. I approve and enjoy diverse, interesting teams in movies, but space movies have started to settle into a groove of showing us the hard-assed Alpha Chinese woman (in Life this character won't even speak English), the gentle Beta Japanese American male, and (like cop movies fifty years ago) the African American team member who becomes a sort of McGuffin (literally so in Stowaway, see also Nightflyers). In the rapidly-cancelled series Away, the diverse team, crossing the line into special-snowflakehood, all cried a lot as well.

The beauty of the starry backdrop will mostly be ignored. The biggest missing piece in most of these movies is the astonishing beauty of space. This may also be because a starry sky for some reasion is a difficult effect to pull off, which easily looks fake. In many films, the mindset that we are in a dark, cold, dangerous vacuum (referred to rather pretentiously in Nightflyers as "the void") obviates any idea that it may also be beautiful (which makes no sense, because Everest, Antarctica, etc. are dangerous and beautiful). Also, in a propulsively-plotted thriller, directors and writers may think there is no time to stop and admire the stars.

Decent people will try to get by in difficult situations. In space. This genre was exempiflied by Gravity; Stowaway is a good recent entry (there are five people on board and only enough 02 for four to make it to Jupiter and back). These are barely science fiction, in that they portray situations which could happen today. With recent announcements of upcoming movie projects to be filmed in space, within twenty or thirty years a certain genre of space ship and space station film will no longer be science fiction, strictly speaking--any more than the submarine movie is.

We end with a gaze or a stare. Having arrived at the destination planet, or back on earth, or, in some cases, floating in space or sitting outside the ship fatally irradiated, the protagonist looks at the object, or at nothing at all, with a Thousand Light Year Stare.