Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine seemed to kick off a new sub-genre of reality based space movies. It wasn’t the most successful movie of 2007, especially in the US, Boyle’s reputation from Trainspotting and 28 Days Later was more celebrated in the UK and his imprint on American audiences was more in a cult capacity at the time. The movie cost $40 million to make, earned just over $3.6 million in the US and $28.3 million internationally. It didn't make much of an impact in theaters at the time, but for me it kicked off an excitement for space movies.
Sunshine is the story of a spaceship crew tasked to reignite the sun with an atomic bomb the size of Manhattan Island. The crew comes at odds with each other as they journey so close to the sun. They are so close to the radio disruption of the sun that they can no longer send transmissions back to Earth to speak with their loved ones. The movie opens with a pre-Captain America Chris Evans wrestling with a post-28 Days Later Cillian Murphy. The ensemble cast rounds out with Michelle Yeoh (from everything), Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis (who may now be best known as the captain on the ship in The Meg who really likes to smile at Jason Statham), Troy Garity (not to be confused with Ross from Friends), Hiroyuki Sanada (he has been in a lot of good movies like The Wolverine but also has the designation of being steriotypecast in both The Last Samurai and 47 Ronin), Benedict Wong (Wong in Dr. Strange) and Mark Strong (also from everything).
Sunshine came out at a weird time for movies. There hadn’t been many prominent science fiction or space movies released for about ten years before it came out. Video rental stores were just about to completely die off. The release of this movie, the lack of sci-if and the death of video stores all place themselves in the same space in my memory. It was 2007 I was working in a video store that had just opened and was almost exclusively populated with DVDs from ‘06 and ‘07.
I was blown away by Sunshine, it was probably favorite movie when it came out. I was just out of college and had been watching 2001 on a loop as I was studying for the GRE after college. On one day a guy came into the video store and I recommended Sunshine. A couple of days later he came back to the store in excitement and asked for another sci-fi movie. I knew every movie in the store although we didn’t have very many. That guy’s best bet would have been to go out and buy seasons of Battlestar Galactica because at that time if you wanted to go to space, you had to watch TV and that show was just about to end. I’m pretty sure that guy ended up leaving the story with a long face and empty hands. I was not interested in up-selling.
Around eleven months into my tenure at the chain video store I told my boss I got into grad school for film studies and would be moving away. I did pretty well on the GRE but didn’t end up getting accepted to the schools that had I applied to. I didn’t actually have a plan after my last day. I got pretty lucky and found a job listing online for sports data and just two weeks later I transitioned into the job I held for the next three years before law school. The video store didn’t last much longer after I quit, it closed within a few months, marking one of the string of places that I worked that closed soon after I left.
Sunshine is a space movie that has a foot in realistic science. There are no space wizards, giant worms and it doesn’t take place in a future so far away that society is unrecognizable. Now, I love those kinds of movies, but I also love the reality-based science fiction space movies. Hard sci-fi might be the sub-genre for it, but these movies are a little more reality based than the phallic horror monsters of Alien or the psychedelic monolith ambiguity of 2001. Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey both have a hand in influencing all of the sci-fi movies I’ll mention here. Sunshine has the diverse ensemble crew and unseen horror of Alien and a wild ride in the nuclear explosion of the star gate sequence and spaceship design of 2001.
I couldn’t just watch Sunshine by itself. It fits so nicely into this mini genre of space films that I have to give it a shared universe. This isn’t the first Time I’ve thought of a shared universe of space movies. A couple of years ago I started a watchlist of space movies and I have since honed and expanded the list.
One influence for expanding the list comes from a movie that inspired many of the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The zero G and spinning centrifuge scenes in 2001 are almost shot for shot from a Soviet movie Road to the Stars (1957) that came out 4 years before the first manned trip to space and 11 years before Kubrick's film. It happens that this Soviet movie happens to be in the public domain so it can be watched in full off of YouTube (just under an hour).
Road to the Stars is a strange movie and I haven’t seen anything with a story structure quite like it until very recently. The first half of the movie is the re-enacted history of very early invention of rockets up and goes through the launch of Sputnik. Once the history catches up to present day 1957 the movie then switches to a speculative history of the future of space travel from a space station to Soviets on the moon.
The closest thing I have seen to that mixture of history and speculative future is the opening sequence of the awful movie Valerian. It is the only thing worth seeing of this movie. It tells the story of man getting into space, building space stations, combining space stations between nations then into the future of combining the space station with aliens as more and more alien races are contacted. The space station grows to the size of a massive city then ventures out beyond our solar system to travel on its own to kick off the horrid plot of the movie.
My watchlist of space movies starts in reality as Americans get into space with Hidden Figures (2016). I’m sure the near future of this shared universe will also let in the upcoming First Man, the story of the Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, as long as it doesn’t disappoint. Then Apollo 13 (1995), showing the first extended trip into space in the list, followed by the entrance into fiction with Contact (1997). Contact doesn’t exactly take the characters to space for more than a few scenes, but the next film, Gravity (2013) is entirely set in orbit. The Martian (2015) takes the watchlist past the moon and Arrival (2016) gives us the first confirmed contact with aliens, even if they are just narrowing down that they will meet back up with humans in 3000 years. Interstellar (2014) introduces a problem with the climate on earth and a few possible solutions and Sunshine (2007) concludes the list by finally fixing the problem as the Earth has fallen further into a climate disaster. That’s the gist of the story, but there’s so much more to it than that. Let’s get into it.
One of my favorite movies of 2016, certainly my favorite of the Best Picture Nominees that year, Hidden Figures is one of my go-to movies to throw on while relaxing. As far as this watchlist goes, this illustrates the concept of showing how man figured out how to get into space is essential to the watchlist just as Road to the Stars opens on the invention of rockets. It’s a great way to kick off this series of movies with the fantastic characters played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae along with the great soundtrack helmed by Pharrell Williams.
John Glenn is depicted by the actor Glen Powell, who is a bit of a doppelgänger
in looks and charisma to Chris Evans. Powell is most known for his roles as a college baseball player in Everybody Wants Some and the Netflix romcom Set it Up. This might be the first stop in connecting characters of these movies if Powell’s character is considered in the same family tree as Chris Evans’ in Sunshine through a lineage of boy scout astronauts. When dealing in science fiction it’s best to remember that everyone is related,caugh, Star Wars, caugh.
Glenn is the one space man of the movie, and it’s not about him, it’s about getting him up there. This movie makes you realize that Apollo 13 is just showing the surface by only showing white dudes in short sleeve shirts solving the problems when in the background. It was ladies like these who were doing the calculations ahead of time, getting the IBM computers to work and litigating for the right to get more diversity at NASA so that they could have the best people, not just the best available white guys.
Years later, the space program has been to the moon and back and the American people have lost interest in space travel. When a problem arose on Apollo 13 on the way to the moon in the early ‘70’s, TV cameras weren’t fixed on the skies. Dick Cavett cracked jokes about “girl-watching weather,” before it was apparent to the public that there was an emergency for Tom Hanks’ character and friends. What the hell was that?
A room full of white guys in short sleeves find a way to jerry rig the space capsule so that it comes back to earth before time runs out on the astronauts. This movie benefits from the cramped environment in the space capsule that enabled the film crew to shoot the weightless scenes in actual weightlessness on the “Vomit Comet.” That is an airplane that flies in a parabolic flight pattern to simulate zero G for a few minutes at a time as the plane dives. Not everything is practical in Apollo 13, Howard mixes CGI with real shots to heighten reality and the sound mix places the viewer in the middle of the noise of space travel.
It isn’t just a another step in space travel before we get into the fictional section of the watchlist, there’s also a far fetched relation in this movie that adds one more supplemental movie into the series: Saving Private Ryan. Hang with me here. Tom Hanks’ characters in that movie and this are both humble leaders, very much as though they were father and son. The Apollo 13 character’s mother shows up when he’s stranded in space to be consoled by the first men to walk on the moon. The biggest connection between Saving Private Ryan and this series is from Private Ryan himself, Matt Damon. In Damon's two movies in this series he plays characters who are stranded with varying levels of guilt over having to be saved. This is much like Private Ryan who doesn’t really wanted to be saved when he is finally found. So, Private Ryan would have had a grandson or great grandson who was stuck on mars and The Martian would have had a son or grandson who was stuck on Mann’s planet.
Robert Zemeckis directs Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey in a Carl Sagan story of the first alien message from space for the first fictional entry into the list. We are gently nudged into fiction by setting the story during the Clinton administration.
Contact is the story of a signal that comes from space that is decoded to be the blueprint for a circular mechanism that is expected to transport to a meeting with the aliens that sent the message. In a movie that’s a mixture of biblical faith, science, and aliens Contact keeps the ambiguity that all three maintain in real life. There is the biblical story of Ezekiel who sees a wheel in the sky inhabited by four weird beings who give him designs for him to build the same kind of “wheel” in a cave. This story is referenced in the Nicolas Cage movie Knowing and is cited a lot by ancient aliens wackos.
Extremist wackos find there way into the story as Jake Busey’s cult leader character commits an act of terrorism to nearly destroy any hopes of contact being made. The movie concludes with congressional hearings debating the reliability of eyewitness testimony and faith in scientists. Matthew McConaughey’s character shows sympathy for Foster after her account is not accepted without more evidenceas he is accustomed to taking his beliefs on faith. It probably also means that the main character from Interstellar is the grandkid or great grandkid of McConaughey and Foster's characters here.
There is an intricate scene of the younger Jodie Foster character running through the house ending with a trick shot through the bathroom mirror but it opens with another iconic shot. This is the first movie in this series with a female lead and a dead relative that drives her, in this case, it’s her dad.
Contact opens with another long take, one that takes us away from Earth through the solar system and through the Milky Way while we listen to the sounds of the radio through the decades. The signal that comes back leads to an undertaking to build the device, well, devices, is a multi-year project that starts with government funded SETI searching the sky for signals that lead to a privately funded endeavor. In the end, Jodie Foster gets to take her own 2001 stargate style trip through a few worm holes so that she can talk to an alien who looks like her dad. The aliens let her know that they like the human race, but they don't like like people enough to come back in the near future.
Years after the events of Contact, the space program is back in full swing with quite a bit of international competition of the space stations. It is a movie of sequential problem solving much like video game play that gets harder and harder with waves of challenges. Director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had played with video game imagery in Children of Men in the action sequence in the final act.
The film ends with a Sandra Bullock sequence where she goes from drowning to swimming to crawling to standing and walking. This harkens to 2001’s sequence of the apes learning to turn cast off bones as weapons then tossing them into the air until they jump cut us into a future with satellites armed with nuclear weapons aimed back at earth.
This is another space movie with a female lead and in this one she has a dead kid. Oddly, George Clooney was in another space movie, Solaris a remake by Steven Soderbergh, where the male lead has a dead wife back on earth for once. Neither Solaris is not a bad movie, fits more with 2001 than the realism of these movies, and are a bit too long.
And so we find our way from orbit around Earth to a whole other planet. Matt Damon is another character filled with guilt for being marooned, probably a few generations removed from Private Ryan, doomed to be stuck on Mars with only a disco soundtrack to entertain him. Over the generations, the Matt Damon character’s family seems to have passed down an ethic of resourcefulness. He ultimately finds a way to get off the planet and meet up with his old crew as they come back around to save him.
There’s another legacy character in The Martian as Jessica Chastain is the captain of the Mars mission here and is later one of the head scientists in Arrival. The character in Arrival is the daughter of Matthew McConaughey's character, who derives from the leads in Contact. It would make sense that the captain in The Martian shares a family tree with Matthew McConaughey and Jody Foster characters from Contact. I seem to be moving past Star Wars territory and into Game of Thrones when it comes to complexity of family trees.
Lord of the Rings! There is a little connection here to Frodo and they boys and it’s not very subtle. In the scene where Donald Glover’s character holds a secret meeting codenamed “Project Elrond” named after the meeting where the Fellowship of the Ring was formed in secret. Not so subtly, Sean Bean is at both meetings although I feel like it’s a bit of a stretch to pretend that both movies take place in the same universe. He comes out without dying in The Martian, no one ends up dying in The Martian. It’s the only fictional movie on this list without fatalities and definitely the only Ridley Scott space movie without fatalities. It doesn’t suffer from a loss of drama.
The movie is pretty faithful to the book, only taking out story points that would have messed with the pacing of the movie. Mackenzie Davis plays the character Mindy Park in an odd choice for the character changes who changes race from Korean to Caucasian. Davis is very good in her performance and her character in the book is pretty important as a side character. It’s a shame the character isn’t highlighted more and it’s unfortunate that the actor was stuck in the middle of a white washing situation in casting.
There isn’t exactly a stargate scene but the spaceship resembles the craft in 2001 with its the shape and centrifugal gravity technology of the ship. Matt Damon’s transition from his own rocket to the main ship at the end of the movie is much like the ship to ship float in Sunshine between the two Icarus ships and Star Trek Into Darkness, although they had the help google glass of the future.
Denis Villenueve and Amy Adams (not Jessica Chastain) made a beautiful movie, even if it’s difficult to watch the heavy drama at times. They never make it into space but contact with aliens takes a bigger leap into popular acceptance. Terrorists are at it again trying to sabotage communications with aliens, while Contact is attacked by a religious extremist, Arrival is attacked by conspiracy theorist members of the military. The aliens say they plan to be back in 3,000 years, similar to Contact.
Space suits are replaced with hazmat suits. The female lead, Amy Adams, again has a dead kid. The alien ship is almost like an egg shaped monolith as aliens bring a message to Earth. The message is for humans of all nations to work together to receive the gift of their time traveling language. This idea of sharing language leading to world peace also comes from the writer of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke. The sequel book to 2010: The Year We Make Contact, 2061: Odyssey Two, posits that world peace has been achieved after the phone companies of the world have made all long distance and international telephone calls completely free. That could be the case with the internet making the world a smaller place, or it could be completely wrong by giving a bigger mouthpiece to trolls.
While Arrival is about the ghosts of the future, Interstellar’s first act is almost a ghost story as well. McConaughey's daughter thinks her room is haunted because she’s receiving messages from an unseen source. They get hints about NASA from this “ghost” who comes from Interstellar’s version of a stargate, the tesseract, and shakes hands with Anne Hathaway as she passes through her own stargate.
NASA has gone off the grid although it is still part of government and budgeting. McConaughey mentions that his son can’t go to college despite the taxes he has paid and the fact that there is no more military to eat up half of the Federal budget. He doesn’t realize until he is at the NASA base that his taxes are paying for a secret space program. And to think that with a little better organizing of expenses NASA or some of that government funding could have gone toward better education for the younger generations or at least a NASA funded university to avoid the brain drain that was going on. Perhaps they would have had more than a handful of scientists working on their gravitational issues and with more minds could have solved the problem decades earlier. If they were “not meant to save the world, meant to leave it,” they should have invested more into “leaving it” rather than keeping the status quo.
It’s not just that there are a few stargate sequences, this movie also has an AI robot named TARS with a sense of humor to liken himself to HAL blowing people out the airlock. The initial launch of the shuttle utilizes the imagery of the Apollo 13 launch of a rocket. The soundtrack is its own reference to faith, whether it’s from the power of love to inspire innovation or the theme of faith in Contact. The score is pulsating, guttural organ music, much like a church experience. There is a reason churches have organs, because they seem to elicit a feeling of god or other-worldliness that reverberates through the body. It probably isn’t intentional by churches but there’s a bit of a scientific explanation for this sensation. The great bass pipes play at such a low register that they even hit frequencies below the range of the human ear, but they reverberate through the body causing a sensation. It’s called infrasonic sound, it’s really cool and here’s a great article about it.
While the fields are turning to dust in Interstellar, the space program had three plans. The plans were to send out scouts to find a planet to migrate humanity to and reverse gravity to move everyone off the planet, plan B was to send genetic material to a habitable planet, and plan C was to move everyone off planet to a habitable environment in space on a gigantic space station. In Sunshine, the problem that was killing off the Earth has been discovered to be a mass of dark matter in the sun. The dark matter is causing the sun to not release as much energy to Earth as before, as though it is dying, resulting in the Earth practically freezing over the for survivors who did not leave to the space habitats in Interstellar.
Oh boy do we have connections here. Glen Powell (John Glenn in Hidden Figures) can be connected to Chris Evans in Sunshine from the similarities in their likenesses but that’s not necessary. A young Benedict Wong has a backstory in Sunshine as a former hacking prodigy who took down the world’s internet as a kid, but later went straight to be a genius navigator for the Icarus. He was used to always being the best and never making mistakes so his mistake on the ship wracks him with guilt. He has an ancestor, played by an older Benedict Wong from JPL who worked with China to help Matt Damon off of Mars.
Danny Boyle uses a score that is inspirational and dramatic, much like Interstellar, although not in as low of a register. Some of that score music has been used as interstitial music in NBC olympic coverage and a knock off version of the score music was used in the movie Kick-Ass in the scene where Hit Girl tries to save her compatriots who are tied to chairs and set ablaze.
Where Apollo 13 uses real world style space suits, The Martian and Interstellar use tighter fit space suits for better range and style, and Arrival swaps out space suits for hazmat suits, while Sunshine uses gold space suits to protect from the extreme heat and radiation of the sun. Sunshine references the holodeck of Star Trek The Next Generation with an experience room used for therapy on the Icarus in a not quite as immersive experience than what the Star Fleet offers.
There isn’t exactly a stargate sequence in Sunshine although the nuclear explosion at the end is quite a visual experience. One of my favorite moments of this movie and one of my favorite visual moments of all film comes from the scene where the crew watches the planet Mercury pass in front of the sun. It’s slower and smaller than any of the stargate sequences in these movies. It isn’t a ride but it brings a realism of something natural that no viewer has seen before. Mercury is so small and almost insignificant compared to the monster of size and power of the sun behind it. The watch list ends in a simple, hopeful note of a sunny day in frozen over Sydney. We may have been destined to leave, but in the end we come back to save our home.
I love these realism based space movies, but that doesn’t mean I’m a snob about magic in space or impossible science in Sci Fi or movies with magic. I don’t think someone has to be Star Trek vs. Star Wars or hard sci-fi vs soft sci-fi. I know that by mixing non-fiction with science fiction I’ve broken some sacred law, but at least I didn’t dip this list into including any underground mutants who worship a nuclear bomb. If this watch list doesn’t make any sense I’m going to have to blame it on the Soviets.
Next month: Faces Places. We take a look at Agnes Varda, JR, murals and Jean-Luc Godard.