By Sudeshna Rana
Picture Source: Google Images
Before I could earn and save up enough to go backpacking across cities, I was a lonely and sheltered child who often looked up at the sky and fantasized about space travel. I spent hours learning the names of the many moons of Jupiter from dog-eared pages of an old encyclopedia and failed miserably at finding constellations in the night sky. With a mixture of longing and curiosity, my super imaginative childish dreams consisted of hopping from planet to planet, zooming across galaxies and befriending aliens.
Adulthood brought many changes, but my obsession with space only thrived. From Buzz Lightyear to Rick and Morty, stories and characters that swear by the idea of space adventures continue to tickle my nerdy bone. With the lockdown putting my travel plans on indefinite halt and confining me inside the four walls of my room, I have found myself relishing the absolute joy and thrill of watching space movies again.
So, here’s a list of movies that will take you on a celestial ride and fellow die-hard space-junkies can enjoy during this lockdown.
1. Wall E
This movie was released when I was in my 8th grade. Stuck in adolescent awkwardness, unable to connect with either the adults or the kids my age, this adorable robot became my absolute favourite. Pixar did a brilliant job in sowing the seeds of environmentalism and anti-consumerism among the viewers and was lauded by critics for its excellent storyline.
Set in a desolate future, where humans have left Earth uninhabitable after overusing all its resources, a solitary trash compactor robot is left to clean up the garbage. Wall E falls in love with Eva, who comes to look for signs of life on the deserted Earth. (The space dance with Eva among the stars still makes me swoon.) While viewers root for a happy ending, their romance culminates in the return of humans back to their home planet and restart life. Those big innocent eyes and cute actions won the hearts of millions and the movie topped Time Magazine’s list of the “Best Movies of the Decade“.
Director Alfonso Cuarón created this nail-biting thriller helmed by the power-house Sandra Bullock. Her incredible performance rendered a memorable survival tale for space travel disasters. George Clooney’s guest role is well-cast, but it is Bullock who is able to bring the nuances and complexities of her character’s inner turmoil through her superb onscreen performance. The film’s portrayal of realistic technology, believable use of science and universal inner psychology of human life, makes it a part of the mundane science fiction subgenre that started in the ’60s in opposition to the mainstream depiction of over-romanticized space travel.
I was lucky enough to watch the movie in a theatre (with a pair of 3D goggles, Yay!). The experience is still seared in my memory, making it one of the best cinematic experiences of my lifetime. Brownie points for starting the plot with Raj Kapoor’s song ‘Mera joota hai Japani‘, the classic number was a perfect celebratory prelude to Gravity.
Christopher Nolan is a modern Homer and Interstellar, his magnum opus. The plot follows a group of astronauts in a dystopian future, transcending boundaries of space and time by journeying through a wormhole. A stellar cast, spectacular visuals and the spell-binding score; a combination that took viewers on an unforgettable visceral experience.
Based on the actual studies of gravity and astrophysics by Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, Nolan creates a masterpiece for the Anthropocene age depicting humanity’s struggle to survive and search for a new home. The highlight of the story is its depiction of love on the same plane as science.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Homerian inspiration is paramount in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Made in collaboration with noted sci-fi writer, Arthur C. Clarke, this film has been recognised as one of the greatest movies ever made. Kubrick claimed, “It occurred to us that for the Greeks the vast stretches of the sea must have had the same sort of mystery and remoteness that space has for our generation”.
The movie left me scratching my head, looking for unattainable answers. What is the significance of the rectangular monolith? Why does an astronaut hurtle through a psychedelic light show? What is the meaning of the cosmic foetus? Multiple interpretations exist of these mysterious aspects, but the most chilling of them is the android HAL 9000 and the growth of AI in today’s world. The film still remains an enigma to audiences and critics alike.
Solaris is not your usual run of the mill space movie. This 1972 film is noted for its artistic appeal, poetic visuals and a psychological and emotional depth, new to science fiction films. Directed by experimental filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, the movie is a critique of the shallowness of western works in the genre (Hint: Star Wars); which he deemed as shallow due to their focus on technological invention and mass appeal.
The plot revolves around the titular planet which leads to the materialization of memories in the lives of the crew members of an orbiting space station. This strange phenomena, in the words of Salman Rushdie, masterfully explores “the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious”. A word of caution: Do not watch Hollywood’s disastrous adaptation of this gem.
6. On The Silver Globe (1988)
TRIGGER WARNING: Its dark portrayal of humanity can add to the trauma of being forced into isolation and witnessing one of the biggest falls of civilization this year.
A film whose history is as intriguing as the movie itself, On The Silver Globe was directed by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski and adapted from the Lunar Trilogy written by his granduncle Jerzy Żuławski. The film project was left unfinished, due to a totalitarian government’s censorship on cultural affairs and the director’s untimely death.
This space opera is centred around a group of astronauts who leave Earth, colonize a new settlement on the Moon and wage war against the indigenous alien population. I found the narrative to be a brilliant metaphor for the growth of religion in a society, using biblical symbolism, political allegory and cult motifs. Although, the movie can leave a bitter aftertaste(for some). Its dark portrayal of humanity can add to the trauma of being forced into isolation and witnessing one of the biggest falls of civilization this year. Therefore, I will recommend it with a trigger warning. On the other hand, if you are someone with a taste for dark humour this might seem like cosmic humour too.
I saw Moon, a 2009 film, as part of an interdisciplinary course in Delhi University. The movie has been studied by Amy Karofsky and Mary M. Litch in Philosophy through Films, a seminal interdisciplinary book. The movie was a complex study into the themes of transhumanism, the ethics of biotechnology, industrialization and human identity.
Directed by Duncan Jones and led by the one-man army (literally), Sam Rockwell. The film follows Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) and a robot companion, GERTY. The audience soon discovers that clones are implanted for mining helium-3 and deteriorate after every three-year solitary harvest stint. The retro mood of the lunar landscape serves as a desolate and isolated backdrop to the protagonist’s crisis. Fans of Black Mirror will surely vibe with Moon’s disturbing portrayal of invasive technology on the dark side of the Moon.
8. The Martian
I had (until this crazy year), mostly, lost interest in mainstream American cinema. The Martian was a pleasant surprise. While the usual Hollywood space drama gimmicks make this movie seem saccharine for sure, there are moments when you do end up rooting for the astronaut turned extra-terrestrial farmer. Matt Damon donning the old school Robinson Crusoe castaway look will surely give you a few good laughs. I particularly enjoyed fertilizing potatoes with human crap.
While the movie pays heartfelt tribute to human tenacity for survival, the subtle act of relegating actors of colour to being classic “Man Fridays” is questionable (Donald Glover shines even for the short duration he is on screen!).
9. First Man
The biopic of the first man to walk on the Moon, I had been waiting for First Man, for quite some time. The movie deromanticizes the American space race propaganda against the Soviets. While the performance and direction is gritty and realistic, the voice that rung clearly in the movie is the rendition of spoken-word poem: ‘Whitey on the Moon’ by Gil Scott-Heron (played by the delightful Leon Bridges!)
The sombre take on Armstrong’s life and career in the 1960s, brings the audience to the pertinent questions. Who benefits from the space program and why is it being funded at the cost of human lives? Is international competitive space race a distraction from internal problems?
As an adult, I have learnt to accept the grandiose claims by billionaires of multi-planetary civilization with a pinch of salt. Space travel is a distant dream for most of us and will probably remain unfulfilled for most of us. But the journey to space doesn’t have to be spatio-temporal. There are other dimensions that all of us can explore. Art is one medium of travel to these dimensions.
Cinema, as an art form, transcends all boundaries and space films take us “to infinity and beyond”…
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