This month, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, we’re presenting some resources related to space. Because space has always intrigued storytellers, I’ve decided to lighten things up a little and write about some of my favorite space movies.
There were some rather intense conversations with co-workers and family members about what movies belong on this list. One of those arguments was just what counts as a space movie. I decided, based on nothing but my own opinion, that the main criterion is that travel through space has to be a key component of the plot (please don’t ask for a definition of “key component”).
In what follows, I count down my five favorites with increasingly longer reflections. I’d be happy to defend my selections in the comments section on the Forum.
5. Apollo 13
Here is the only movie on my list that isn’t science fiction (there aren’t many candidates in the sub-category of “non-fiction space movies”…at least that we know of… maybe in a galaxy far, far away they have a bunch of them). I really like a movie that holds your attention and keeps you filled with suspense, even though you know exactly how it is going to end. Science fiction space movies get us used to thinking of space travel as just another mode of transportation. Apollo 13 reminds us that it is a tricky and risky business to put people in an aluminum tube and blast them into the vacuum of space. Watching this movie (and the new CNN Documentary Apollo 11), it never ceases to amaze me that we humans pulled off (mostly) successful space flight with less computer technology than is found in a $20 digital wrist watch today. Tom Hanks is entirely believable in every character he plays, but his portrayal of Jim Lovell is one of my favorites in his iconic career.
4. Planet of the Apes
This is a classic. Yes, the moviemaking itself is a little wonky and clearly a child of its time (1968). And the subsequent franchise in the 70s was as campy as you can get. But I think this original movie holds up, on the whole. The theme of science versus religion is prominent, and perhaps I’m drawn to the movie because many of the speeches were delivered again, almost verbatim, by actors in the drama of my professional career.
Maybe it is a stretch to call this a space movie (there were arguments). But the whole story is set up by a crash landing of the astronauts. [mild spoiler alert] Of course, the twist at the end throws all of that into some confusion. I doubt if the recent prequel trilogy of Planet of the Apes movies will be remembered as high points in American cinema, but I think they make the original even better by adding to the coherence of this fantasy world. The most incoherent part of the original is that astronaut Charlton Heston isn’t surprised at all that the apes on this previously unknown planet speak English. The prequels solve that for us (I guess? How many years could pass with English being unchanged?). But shouldn’t Heston have been more surprised that they were speaking English than that they spoke at all? The language aspect of all space travel movies is tricky to convey plausibly and usually requires us to suspend our disbelief… except in the next one on my list.
Again, not a lot of space travel going on in the action of the movie itself, but you’ve got to have it to get the story going. This is the most recent movie on my list. I hope it holds up over time, because so far I really like it. But it’s not without its flaws: Jeremy Renner seems miscast in his role as a PhD in physics (it’s hard for me to believe him outside of his action roles from Mission Impossible, Bourne, and the Avengers movies), and I don’t really see why the special task force in this film needed a PhD in physics. They needed more Amy Adams linguists. Yes, there were some things going on that defied our understanding of physics, but the whole story is about language. And that’s why I really like this film. I’ve already written about Arrival here.
I’m sympathetic to the constitutive view of language, which is that our words do not merely passively refer to things, but actively help to constitute the things we talk about. Don’t misread that. I’m not endorsing some postmodern “there-is-no-reality” view. I’m just saying that the words we have for things are not simply labels, and that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between our words and the things that exist. (If you’re interested in understanding and examining this point, I highly recommend Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal.) Take that view of language and connect it to organisms with very different sensory equipment and evolutionary history, and you’ll get the massive difficulty with communication we’d surely encounter with an alien species. Could the perception of time be part of the difficulty and miscommunication? Kant and many other philosophers wouldn’t think so, but I’m not so sure we can stipulate from our own perspective how this would work. Arrival explores this in a really interesting way.
2. Star Wars: A New Hope
Okay, here is where the arguments get really intense. I know all the film critics (both professional and armchair) claim The Empire Strikes Back to be the best of the original trilogy and even the best of the entire (now rapidly growing) franchise. But the first one has a massive emotional connection for me. I was a kid when this movie came out and wasn’t allowed to go see it in the theatres. But I saw it not too much later at someone’s house on a LaserDisc player.
I was utterly fascinated. I had been introduced to fantasy stories through Narnia, but this was my first science fiction. And I was hooked. Other planets, other creatures, other technologies—these were all so fruitful for my imagination. But most of all, this movie sparked my lifelong interest in artificial intelligence. The droids weren’t just machines. They had personality, even agency (as we philosophers call the ability to make decisions and be responsible for those decisions). What would it be like for real life to be integrated with such things? We’re getting closer and closer to finding out.
Of course, you don’t need outer space to explore what artificial intelligence might be like (for an entirely terrestrial version of that, I recommend Ian McEwan’s recent novel, Machines Like Me). But space was also part of the draw for me in this movie. The destroyers were so massive, and the explosions in space pretty amazing to my young mind. This is another movie that benefits by a prequel to give it greater coherence. The recent Rogue One fills in a gap that otherwise seems a little too easy: getting the technical readouts of a Death Star seems pretty tricky itself, and then finding such a convenient flaw in them was a little too much movie magic. Despite its Disney-fication, I think Rogue One is one of the best Star Wars movies because [spoiler alert] the main characters actually have to sacrifice everything in order to achieve their goal.
My three sons grew up on Star Wars episodes 1-3, and they have a similar emotional attachment to those vastly inferior movies as what I have to episodes 4-6. (The arguments with them got pretty heated when I expressed profound disbelief that these different trilogies could even be mentioned in the same breath!). I now have a grandson on the way, who will undoubtedly become the third generation of Stump Star Wars fans. And because the franchise doesn’t appear to have an end in sight, there will probably be new Star Wars movies he gets emotionally attached to. I’m a fan, so, of course I’ll see them. But I can never believe the movies will get any better than A New Hope.
Speaking of an emotional connection, it doesn’t get any more powerful for me than Contact. This is great science fiction—not of the sort where the movie world is so radically different from our own, but where it is so remarkably like our own except for one tiny detail: they have made contact with an intelligent alien species. How does that change things? It certainly makes for a good story.
It has an emotional connection for me because it came out while I was in graduate school, taking a course called “Religious Epistemology” from a fairly well-known atheist. It was his goal to show why every religious claim was misguided, and throughout the semester he made a lot of sense in giving alternate, naturalistic explanations for what religious people thought God was responsible for. After being in that environment awhile, I came to see why people found a naturalistic perspective persuasive. It was as though I learned to speak another language and could shift between them. But that isn’t a stable long-term situation for one’s belief system and I could see there was an imminent crisis. Would I continue down the path that saw my faith as the relic of a bygone era, or perhaps double-down and cling to that faith in spite of the evidence? Were those the only two options?
One afternoon, I left my library carrel and walked to a small theater in a mall in downtown Boston and watched Contact by myself. [Major spoilers to follow…but you should have seen it by now!] The story is about a scientist played by Jodie Foster in the SETI program who seemingly makes contact with some extraterrestrial intelligence. She has lived her life according to the code of empirically verifiable evidence. But the big twist is that her experience with the aliens did not admit of objective verification by others. In the climax to the film, she is put before a congressional investigation committee, because they have spent billions of dollars to make contact with seemingly nothing to show for it. The lead investigator thinks it has all been a hoax and persuasively constructs an alternative explanation for how things might have happened to account for the experience she had. The scientist is somewhat stunned and admits that it is possible she is wrong, so the investigator presses her to give up her fanciful story and admit that it never happened. She says she can’t, because the weight of her own experience won’t allow it.
I sat by myself in that movie theatre and wept at this science fiction story. I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or despair or relief. But in some sense I no longer felt threatened that there were really smart people who thought that my religious beliefs were silly. I saw that the reasonableness of one’s beliefs has to take into account lots of other things besides purportedly objective evidence, and that personal experience and commitment ought to count for something.
Again, the movie has some flaws. The love interest with Matthew McConaughey is wildly implausible, and at the end of the movie I find it perplexing that they would reveal how many hours of static were recorded on the personal recording device (thereby undermining the ambiguity the evidence). But I can’t stop watching this movie. I must have shown it to groups of students at least 15 times over the years. And if I stumble across it airing on cable, I can’t help but stop and watch it again.
Is it a space movie according to my criteria? That’s debatable. Did she go through a wormhole (and would that even count as space travel??) or was it all a delusion? I’m totally committed to saying it is a space movie, and that it’s the best one there is. You might have alternative explanations, but I’m afraid the power of my personal experience will not allow me to accept your views!