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Fly Me to the Moon…

I’m back…

Science-fiction film Moon, starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey is opening in the States next week. It actually looks quite good – with reviews seemingly spanning the divide from “it’s solidly entertaining with a great performance” to “it’s classic science-fiction”. It looks likely to be one of those films I will really try to get to see over the Summer (when it eventually opens here in Ireland), and the trailer is well worth a look. Still, this got me thinking about how the fictional fascination with life on other worlds has been embraced by the genre, and whether that has really changed in recent years.

Sam Rockwell's many jobs on the lunar station include changing lightbulbs when needs be...

Sam Rockwell's many jobs on the lunar station include changing lightbulbs when needs be...

The pulp era of science fiction was fascinated with the world beyond. Perhaps driven by the on-going space race between the superpowers, or perhaps drawn to a cosmos we really didn’t understand to the larger (but still admittedly small) extent that we do today, it was common for humans to mount expeditions to strange new worlds (Forbidden Planet, the entire Star Trek franchise) or to receive visitors from alien planets (Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Day The Earth Stood Still).

What was fascinating was how – after the moon landing – it seemed that the main popular consciousness seemed to allow these ideas to slowly fade, perhaps reflecting the real-world loss of interest in manned expansion into outer space. There was a highly prescient 1969 episode of Doctor Who (“The Seeds of Death”) which foreshadowed a world in which space travel had seemingly become blaisé. Perhaps we felt we had touched enough of the sky, or perhaps we were disappointed that there seemed to be nothing up there to find.

Don’t get me wrong – aliens continued to be a staple of science fiction on the big and small screens. Alien-creatures-on-Earth narratives were quite common in any number of genres, from comedy (My Stepmother’s an Alien) to horror (The Astronaut’s Wife) to touching drama (K-Pax) to conspiracy-driven prime time TV shows (The X-Files) to tween drama (Roswell). There was also the ‘alien invasion’ subgenre (home to summer blockbusters like Independence Day and – arguably – Transformers). Hell, ‘extra-dimensional beings’ showed up at the climax of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

And there were occasional movies that touched on human beings arriving on ‘alien’ worlds, though these mostly remain noted for their rarity and cult status. James Cameron’s Aliens took place largely within a human colony on a strange distant world. Outland was a wonderful hybrid of western and science fiction set on a colony on Saturn’s moon Titan. Total Recall took us to a corporate Mars.

Occasionally, we’d be treated to a humans-in-space movie, like Event Horizon, Solaris or Sunshine, but it seemed that the bulk of modern science fiction had decided to focus on man himself – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind focused on how memories make us who we are, Gattaca looked at the concept of human development in a world where a person’s destiny could be written in their genetic code and the Matrix and Terminator franchises looked at our own capacity to create those devices that would herald our own distruction.

Okay, this isn't from a movie, but it still looks cool...

Okay, this isn't from a movie, but it still looks cool...

There were of course the occasional wholesale attempts to resurrect the “visit to an alien planet” genre, but most of them failed. It’s easy to forget the Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise feature Mission to Mars or Val Kilmore and Carrie-Anne Moss’ visit to the Red Planet, and you’d be right to. Both were respectable attempts, but just missed a certain something. They were also boring and safe, rather than adventurous or new – which you imagine any voyage into the unknown should be.

I’ll accept that the laws of physics (the speed we could possibly travel, the improbability of alien life, the vast stellar distances) render such science fiction pulpy by definition – the time it would currently take to travel to Mars let alone anywhere else is a large deterent, and the spirit of adventure is arguably undermined by the fact that there’s nothing to find there but rocks. Maybe the space race somehow killed that sense of niavity that drove the earlier pulpier examples of space exploration as presented on the big screen – the reality that it is likely simply a big empty void out there jars with the bright and colourful fantasies that we all recall (even though they may have been broadcast in black-and-white). Perhaps such fantasies are best kept in the minds of children and the pages of pulpy comic books – one of the reasons that I do love The Green Lantern so.

I’ll concede that, from a narrative point-of-view at any rate, there are very few stories that need an extraterrestrial environment to be told. The colony in Aliens could stand in for any Vietnamese village during the war. Outland could be any new frontier town. Event Horizon could take place in any haunted house. So, I’ll admit that. You caught me. It’s not necessarily a fascination with the stories that gets me. It’s the striking visuals.

6:00am is Earthrise on the East Coast...

6:00am is Earthrise on the East Coast...

Yes, I’m shallow. And yes, I will accept that visuals in cinema are not everything, but they are a lot. Cinema is a visual medium. In the right hands, foreign worlds provide to perfect opportunity to show a unique visual flair. If you checked out the trailer above, you’ll note that it closes on a fantastically striking image of Earth, as viewed from the moon. The early stills from James Comeron’s Avatar look similarly striking. One of the elements that the new Doctor Who really gets rights is subtly creating these alien worlds (a second sun… a barren moonscape… a radioactive wasteland). One of the better sequences in this year’s Watchmen had Doctor Manhatten navigate the surface of mars as all the threads in his life tied together to the perfect Phillip Glass score. The rest of the film may have been flawed, but that is still one of the movie moments of the year.

I think that the right images can complement a story wonderfully. Cinema is about taking the audience where they’d never get to go otherwise. Sometimes it’s on a character’s metaphorical journey to their own identity, sometimes it’s on a literal journey across diverse geography. Sometimes, it’s a journey to truly alien planet.

So, I am partial to an alien landscape now and again, but only where it serves or enhances the movie or television show being produced. I treat it as a bonus, not a main attraction. That’s why, though the visuals presented in Moon strike me, it’s the reviews that tell me that at its heart is is pure science fiction that really excites me.

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