Stephen McGinty: Outer space forces a look inside

The characters get great views of the Blue Planet in Gravity. Picture: PA
The characters get great views of the Blue Planet in Gravity. Picture: PA
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HOLLYWOOD has finally grasped the fact that the best space films are the ones which make you think about the fragility of life and what it means to be human, writes Stephen McGinty.

Christmas Eve in 1968 saw the most widely watched television broadcast in history. Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon and was about to transmit for the first time images of the earth as viewed from space: a pale blue marble on a vast backdrop of black velvet. The three-man crew were aware that they would be required to comment on the images and did what many people do on momentous occasions, they reached for the Bible. NASA had provided pages of fire-proof paper on which was written verses 1-10 from the King James Version of the Book of Genesis. And so, as hundreds of millions glimpsed their home as a grainy black and white image – the famous moon shot colour photograph would be released later – Bill Anders began: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

‘And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

‘And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.’”

Many were moved to tears, but not Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of the American Atheists, who promptly sued the government for breaching the First Amendment of the US Constitution which separates Church from State. The Supreme Court eventually dismissed the case on the grounds that they had no jurisdiction over deep space.

I thought about Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve broadcast on Thursday evening when I sat stunned in a seat at the Cineworld Imax cinema at the Glasgow Science Centre having just watched Interstellar in the manner the director Christopher Nolan intended, which was on a vast screen 80 feet by 60 feet. For there is something about the serious contemplation of the infinity of space that forces viewers to look inside themselves.

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There are images in Interstellar that I hope to cradle long in my mind: a speck of a spaceship crossing across Jupiter’s rings, the wonder of a wormhole, and even a pick-up truck speeding away from home through a cornfield and away as an eloquent substitute for the traditional blast-off. But for all Interstellar tried to base itself on current theoretical physics – Kip Thorne, the leading expert in the field, was the scientific consultant and successfully argued against anything that broke known laws such as travelling faster than light – the film’s heart is human rather than mechanical. One of the images that will remain with me is Matthew McConaughey’s face as an astronaut listening to distant messages from home. The success last year of Gravity was undoubtedly in part due to the ground-breaking 3D effects but it was also to do with our identification with what anyone would do to survive in the most inhospitable environment, a factor that is also part of Interstellar’s current global success at the box office.

Both films examine the loneliness of deep space exploration and the strange presence of humans in worlds and atmospheres where they do not belong and where they cannot survive outside their thin metal crafts or suits. We’ve been here before with the Challenger disaster and there are few more chilling letters than the presidential address prepared for Richard Nixon in case the Apollo 11 moon landing suffered a catastrophic malfunction. It was written by William Safire, headlined: “In event of Moon Disaster” and reads:

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

“They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

“In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

The wonder of space was best captured in 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick and re-released this weekend in the cinema. I first saw it on DVD in December 2000 on the grounds that, as a film buff I’d already left it far too long and it just wouldn’t seem right to watch it the following year when it would no longer be an image of a possible future but of an imagined past. I’ll be going back to see it on the big screen and regard it as a masterpiece as much for its visual effects which still look seamless and far exceed the cartoon effects of some CGI movies as for its resistance to providing easy answers. What is the black monolith that arrives in the distant past and prompts apes to use bones as weapons, why does it reappear buried in the Moon and who is the “star child” hovering over Earth in the final image? Like so much of space today, the film was baffling mystery upon release with only the determined few willing to read Arthur C Clarke’s novel in search of the illumination that the monolith has been sent by an enlightened intelligence to spur on mankind’s development.

In 1977, nine years after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars changed the face of Hollywood by creating the summer blockbuster, with which we have been inundated every year since. Yet while Star Wars had little of the depth of Kubrick’s masterpiece, it still captured a generation of kids from its opening words: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.…” and as a member of that generation I’m rather excited to see the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which debuts this weekend and which is set to re-unite me with the heroes of my childhood, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. If I’m honest I can’t take the cartoon space of so many recent sci-fi films, but I’m willing to make an exception at Christmas next year when The Force Awakens is finally released in the cinema.

For movies like Gravity, Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey aren’t just a series of stunning images but are exercises in metaphysical philosophy. They can prompt an audience to ponder what it means to be human, to examine the fragility of both ourselves and our world. Bladerunner, which is also set to enjoy a cinematic re-release, is most memorable for making the audience consider what it means to be human and to question the meaning of life through the death of an android (“Too bad she won’t live … but then again, who does?”) It used to be said that: “In space no-one can hear you scream” but this is being re-written, for today’s cinema-goers: “In space no-one can hear you think”.

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