Open on a shot of some sun barely peeking over a planet. Pan camera to reveal a space station floating nearby. Cue vague narration.
We’ve all seen this played out in some form or another in films, usually followed by a fantastical use of new technology and heart-pounding space peril. The final frontier has always been a muse for futuristic storytelling, and much of the same tropes have popped up time and time again — an expedition to save the human race, a technological error turned life-threatening, an unwavering drive to return home.
The epic scale of outer space films has always been popular with audiences, although it has recently re-entered the cinema with a rush of movies involving space travel. Beginning around the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s groundbreaking “Gravity” in 2013, visually stunning space films have become commonplace on the list of highest-grossing movies. In fact, they’ve become award-worthy. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” snagged a Golden Globe for Best Comedic Motion Picture. Although not set in space, Denis Villeneuve’s extraterrestrial “Arrival” is a contender for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.
Recent films taking place in outer space include “Passengers,” “The Space Between Us” and the forthcoming “Life.”
What makes the concept of space such a contender for a box office hit? Perhaps it is the idea of the unknown. Directors can do whatever they want in these films, because there are no rules for space. Having only traveled as far as the moon, humans have no idea of what life in space is truly like, so audiences are willing to accept whatever vision filmmakers dream up. They dismantle physics, redefine the concept of time and create impossible technology — and audiences eat it up.
The ticket to success requires a certain balance of reality, however. Many space films are rooted in fact, providing just enough familiar content to convince audiences that the story being told could very well happen in real life. More often than not, technologies in these movies resembles existing technology on Earth, providing a link between what the viewer knows to be true and what they suspend their belief to accept as true. It’s a delicate balance. The director doesn’t want to make a film so saturated with the unknown that it isn’t relatable, but they don’t want to make a film that’s too realistic and thus unenjoyable.
There’s a certain fascination of the unknown that seems to flow throughout our culture, especially when regarding outer space. What lies beyond our solar system? Does life exist beyond our Earth? Is long distance space travel even a possibility? Audiences want answers to these questions, and space films provide the answers.
There’s a reason audiences have to turn to movies for an idea of what space is like. Despite the appeal of space on the big screen, the percentage of federal funding to NASA has been slashed to nearly a tenth of what it was during the space boom of the 1960s. The notion of space travel has long since become unimportant, but this reemergence of space in the cinema might, for lack of a better term, be pointing out the gravity of the situation.
With the powerful impact films have in shaping society, we could potentially see an increase in funding in the future. In fact, as space films have taken off in recent years, funding for NASA in 2016 was the highest it’s been in a decade at $19.3 billion. With important films like this year’s Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” entering movie theaters, public opinion of space programs seems to be shifting to a more enthusiastic one.
Perhaps audiences are beginning to realize that the only way we could end up growing potatoes on Mars or experiencing time warps through multidimensional black holes is through support of long-neglected space programs. In other words, the unknown will only become real as long as we will it to.
As support grows, interest in space will grow, and more space films will continue to populate the cinema. If audiences can back multimillion-dollar films that depict fake space adventures, then surely they can get behind funding to make a trip to a galaxy far, far away a not-too-distant reality.