Out Here: morality and conjecture in the contemporary space drama

A friend of mine once made a statement about space films on her Twitter account, and I’ve been mulling it around in my mind ever since. She said, “All I want is a space movie that doesn’t ask any larger questions,” which calls to mind all the outer space morality plays we’ve witnessed in the last couple decades.

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Elysium, or “Why Was Jodie Foster’s Bad Accent Necessary To Make Her a Villain?”, didn’t so much pose a larger question as it answered one question over and over, really loudly. Class warfare is really hard, everybody! Also everyone deserves access to healthcare!

I thought the most interesting part of Elysium was the enigmatic Wagner Moura’s tattooed, lame-legged character Spider, because his role in the VERY straight-forward morality play wasn’t as boring as the unapologetically cruel Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) or the unapologetically good-hearted Max (Matt Damon). Without characters like Spider gumming up the works with their conflicting, selfish objectives, a space drama like Elysium ends up so simplistically rendered that it acts as a disservice to its setting. I mean, it’s deep space for crying out loud! If ever there was room for a grey area, space is it!

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Follow me down the Foster rabbit hole here. In Contact, or “God I Forgot How Much I Loved Pure, Intellectual Jodie Foster,” an brilliant SETI scientist has a casual, unconvincing relationship with a theologian played by Matthew McConaughey and is chosen to represent all of mankind in a communications machine designed by alien lifeforms. We can define Contact as a classical, medieval-style morality play, because it follows Jodie Foster’s Ellie Arroway from her childhood and into maturity, plaguing her throughout her experiences with the same central questions: “Is there a plan for your life? Are you alone? Are we alone?”

Contact does answer these questions with a trippy, wormhole experience that flings Dr. Arroway into deep space and putting her in contact with alien life that chooses to resemble her dead father, but watching the film doesn’t feel like being hit in the face with a banana peel while you’re trying to eat it (you know, the feeling you get while watching Elysium, or worse, Wall-E?) Contact is a classic morality play in some sense, but it also answers its own questions with more questions, or with the admission that we are not meant to know everything about our world just yet. In that way, Contact is a lot like the biblical book of Job.

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Now we’re following the McConaughey trail, so alright, alright, alright. Before I saw Interstellar, a film nut friend of mine said this to me: “You know the kind of the people who say they love movies, and then their favorite movies are things like Avatar and Inception? Those people are going to love Interstellar.” He’s not wrong.

Setting aside how strange it feels to watch the film (“Why do these ancillary characters matter and where did they come from? Why is this movie so horribly devoid of joy? How could something about space exploration feel so boring for the first entire hour?), Interstellar is a quasi-morality play that follows Contact‘s lead, although Christopher Nolan adds too many weird details and muddies the water. It’s a film about mankind’s attempt to find a habitable planet outside of earth’s solar system, but it’s also about McConaughey’s daughter thinking she has a ghost in her room, and it’s also about spacetime and black holes, and it’s also about the ethics of modern science and mankind vs the needs of a single man. It’s also weirdly about the “caretaker generation,” where, boohoo, smart dudes like McConaughey don’t get to be engineers who work for Apple, but are instead forced to work as farmers in the hopes that their kids become engineers and slide down those office slides at Google.

My film nut friend also said he found it offensive that the crew’s only female scientist has some kind of breakdown mid-quest based on what he believed were supposed to be classically feminine ideals. When I watched the movie, however, I found Anne Hathaway’s monologue on love to be a bright spot in an otherwise over-complicated, boring movie. (Not her acting, though. Good Christ, she is so overrated and was straight-up humiliated when juxtaposed with Jessica Chastain.) Hathaway’s character argues that love is the only force that defies space and time, and when McConaughey starts to argue that love is simply a biological imperative connecting us to mates in order to survive as a species, she counters with, “Why do we love people who have already died? What’s the concrete biological imperative in that?”

I just want Hathaway’s love speech to settle into cultural consciousness the way Contact did, because sometimes, although not all the time, the concept of what we do not understand fully is more emotionally arresting than the concept of factual knowledge backed up by experimentation. That grey area is what space is about (and actually, it’s what monsters are about too, so there’s my connection).

I answered my friend tweet’s about space movies and larger questions (though I’ve since deleted my Twitter account) to say that Apollo 13 is the thinking woman’s space movie; its drama is centered entirely around the real-life struggle to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, and there are no larger questions posed in the film which aren’t answered in simple ways. What draws man from the planet of his birth into the stars? According to Apollo 13, it’s just Tom Hanks’ professional hubris. He considers himself a pilot, not an explorer.

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Apollo 13 isn’t a morality play so much as a starkly human story, and for this reason, it’s inherently more interesting and relatable than some of the ethical work being done in films like Interstellar. In fact, films that are set in space while lacking a central moral message tend to be more engrossing, more organically human, and weirdly enough, more insightful into concepts of morality. I’m thinking here of films like MoonAlien and Europa Report.

Duncan Jones’ Moon works for several reasons. First, Sam Rockwell is an imperfect, lovely being capable of being mis-cast or beautifully, beautifully utilized, depending on the project. It’s so much fun to watch him in his element. Second, Moon uses humor in a classically intelligent way: to grab a hold of our human sense of wonder, bring down our defenses, and drive the morality knife in when we’ve reached the film’s closing notes.

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Moon isn’t an exploration of what makes us human. It’s a call to wonder at the weakest and strongest parts of us. It heralds us to examine, though not exhaust, the folly of individuality and memory. Most importantly, it does all this without forcing it down our throats like a packet of Tang.

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Oh, Alien. Can I get through a post on my monster blog without talking about how much I love this movie? I won’t count the ways or anything, but it’s safe to say that my freak flag is jammed firmly into the supple soil of Ellen Ripley’s experience on the Nostromo. Also, friendly reminder that this film was released in 1979. We have yet to fully catch up.

So Alien is a survival story, which is great, but it’s also about the beauty of human imperfection. H. R. Giger’s creature, as described in the film, is beautiful because it’s a being of singular purpose: its own survival, by any destructive means necessary. When we hold up the creature in juxtaposition with Ellen Ripley, the fear, envy and anxiety that makes Ripley human are illuminated. We understand ourselves better while watching Ripley navigate the dark ship.

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I finally watched Europa Report after months of it following me around Netflix. “Oh, so you liked Space Odyssey and Moon and Trollhunter?” Netflix kept whispering. “Try this on for size!”

I did, and although I didn’t love it the way I love Alien, I really, truly respect what it sets out to do. Europa Report is a pretty straight-forward film about science. Not the romance of human exploration and the drive inside all of us to…blah blah Interstellar ad copy blah blah…but the real, surprisingly noble attempt to explore the unknown as a team of human scientists. I’d recommend watching this if you lean more toward films like Apollo 13. I won’t spoil the ending, but in its final moments, the film’s central statement is defined simply as: humans owe each other information, and our lives are made important through the act of sharing truth.

Plus there’s cool space squid monsters, so there’s that.

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