Science fiction in films has evolved and changed forms, with greater use of graphics, animation and special effects as moved through the decades. Ratnottama Sengupta explores how scientific exploration and space missions in films have primarily been probes into the journey of the human mind.
Over the second half of 20th century, as space missions gained popularity and frequency, science fiction too changed form. They have increasingly become techno-oriented, with greater use of graphics and animation and digital imaging. Often scientific exploration is merely the trigger point – primarily the films still probe the journey of the human mind.
MGM’s The Forbidden Planet (1956), shot in Eastmancolour and Cinemascope, is considered the first of the films that now comprise Science Fiction Cinema. The futuristic plot set in the 23rd century revolves around Starship C-57D that reaches the distant planet Altair IV to determine the fate of a 20-year-expedition. The characters, the plot, the isolated setting all bring to mind Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but that is not why it entered – in 2013 – the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
The reasons are:
1) It was the first sci-fi film to depict humans travelling in a faster-than-light starship of their own creation.
2) It is the first to be set on another planet in interstellar space away from Earth.
3) It was the first film of any genre to use entirely electronic musical score (courtesy Bebe and Louis Barron).
4) It was the first film to have a robot that was a character with a distinct personality, not a mere ’tin-can on legs’.
5) At the 29th Academy Awards it was nominated for the Best Visual Effects.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) follows a voyage to Jupiter with the sentient computer Hal after the discovery of a mysterious black monolith affecting human evolution. And in doing so, the film raises questions about technology, artificial intelligence and extra-terrestrial life. Its scientifically accurate depiction of space flight, pioneering special effects, and use of classical music to minimise dialogue have combined to win the film an entry in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
The Polish novel Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem revolves around a psychologist who is sent to a station orbiting a distant planet to discover what has caused the crew to go insane. The novel has been twice adapted for the screen. In 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky of USSR brought an emotional and intellectual depth to the genre that won him the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Thirty years later, in 2002, Steven Soderbergh of USA revisits the site to show ultimately how little we, flawed beings, can fathom the Universe.
Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977) emanated from Steven Spielberg’s sighting of a meteoric shower as lad with his father, in New Jersey. It led to the sci-fi film Firelight that he made in his teens. Later he penned a short story about a group of teenagers in a Midwestern farming community seeing a ‘light show’. All of these culminated in the film about people who believe in UFO, which entered the National Congress Library Register of films in 2007.
When Spielberg first proposed the film, Hollywood majors found it “the worst idea ever.” But after the phenomenal success of Jaws there were takers for Spielberg’s tale of aliens returning the humans they’d kidnapped decades ago – in pristine condition! Spielberg had culled known facts of UFO mystery but USAF and NASA declined to cooperate. Instead, NASA wrote a 20-page letter to say the film’s release will be ‘dangerous’.
The script knitted several unrelated ‘appearances’. A French scientist (Francois Truffaut) and his American interpreter go missing. A mapmaker and other government researchers discover the planes of a squadron that had gone missing, with no sign of the pilots. A lost cargo ship is found in the Gobi desert. An air traffic controller overhears two airline flights avoid a midair collision with a UFO. A three-year-old wakes up at night to find his toys playing on their own. A housewife is frustrated as every household appliance malfunctions. A blue-collar worker burns a side of his face by the bright light of an object that flies over his truck. Witnesses in India’s Dharamshala report hearing a distinctive five-note musical phrase. When this is played into outer space, a series of numbers mystifies the UN scientists investigating the reports. The numbers, when placed in a certain order, indicate a location in Wyoming which the US military is evacuating to a secret landing zone for the UFO and its inhabitants!
Extensively shot on locations, Close Encounters used visual effects to design the aliens. The mothership was made to look like an oil refinery Spielberg had reportedly seen by night, in India, so it emphasised the luminescent look rather than the metallic hardware look of Star Wars (which released the same year). Oxygen mask with lights became one alien; the graceful local girls became the small aliens; puppets too were used to actualise the alien who communicates in the end, by hand signals. All of this combined to weave the story of an everyday person who has a sighting which becomes such an obsession that he leaves his wife and children to fly out in a UFO. The bottom line: Human race has reached a point where it is ready to enter the community of Cosmos.
Spielberg, with his belief in Someone-Out-There, was a frontrunner in humanised space saga. Later, in an interview during the Cold War years, he compared the alien’s communication as “tolerance”. “If we can talk to aliens, why not with the Reds?” he’d asked. And in 1985, after the heart-warming success of ET, he donated $ 100,000 to the Planetary Society for ‘Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay.’
George Lucas’ Star Wars became a pop-culture phenomenon in 1977 and made famous the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” It was followed by successful sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). So successful was the original trilogy that later a prequel trilogy was made between 1999 and 2005. Subsequently Star Wars: The Force Awakens has started off a sequel trilogy. Amazingly each of the releases has garnered financial success as well as Academy Awards nomination and inspired animation series, turning Star Wars into the third highest-grossing film series.
Star Trek (1979), directed by twice academy Award winner Robert Wise, built upon the success of a 1966 television series now referred to as ‘The Original Series’. It followed the interstellar adventures of USS Enterprise, a space exploration vessel built by the United Federation of Planets. It is 23rd century, and when the crew on board spot an alien spacecraft of enormous mysterious power approaching Earth, Admiral Kirk assumes command of the starship to intercept, probe and halt the intruder.
Critics faulted Star Trek for its lack of action and over-reliance on special effects. But the film, conceived at $15 million and completed at $46 million, not only boasts subsequent prequels, sequels, parodies, franchisees, animated series and an upcoming television series that’ll debut in 2017, it has its own fully constructed language, Klingon. Its influence on the world outside sci-fi is traced in technological inventions like cell phone and tablet computers. And, with a multiracial cast to represent the interstellar federal republic, it held aloft a progressive civil rights flag.
Star Trek (1979)
Apollo 13 (1995), director Ron Howard’s adaptation of Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, by astronaut Jim Lovell, highlighted the pitfalls of space adventure. The docudrama depicted with amazing technical accuracy the on-board explosion that deprived Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise of oxygen supply and electric power, forcing NASA flight controllers to turn the aborted lunar mission into a struggle to get the three men home. With Tom Hanks as Lovell, Howard had employed NASA’s technical assistance in astronaut and flight controller training as well as obtained permission to film scenes in a reduced gravity aircraft to convey the ‘weightlessness’ experienced by astronauts in space. It had won the Academy Awards for Best Editing and Best Sound.
Apollo 13 (1995)
In 1998 two ‘Disaster Films’ released, taking the genre into space age. Both, Deep Impact with Robert Duvall and Morgan Freeman, and Armageddon with Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, centred on a giant asteroid on a collision course with Earth. The first was considered scientifically more accurate; the second swept the box-office worldwide, emerging as the highest international grosser of the year.
Gravity (2013), though a sci-fi film about a woman stranded in space, stays etched in viewers’ mind as an essay on how to survive adversity. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts Stone and Kowalski, she in her first mission and he in his final one, aboard NASA space shuttle Explorer. While they are on a spacewalk in mid-orbit, Mission Control in Houston warns them about a cloud of debris formed in space following a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite. Even as they’re being ordered to abort the mission and immediately return to Earth, some debris hurtling towards the Shuttle snaps the communication with Mission Control. Thus begins a survival story that echoes the psychological resilience, even spiritual realisation, seen in the aftermath of shipwreck or other catastrophe.
According to director Alfonso Cuaron, the debris was but a metaphor for calamity, to underscore the need to summon will-power, persistence, training and improvisation in the face of isolation, severe odds, uncertain future… The scenes gain from the contrast between the warm face of Earth and silence of the vacuum space, the claustrophobic capsule and the chaos of the debris field. This could be why the 70th Venice Film Festival opened with the film that would go on to claim seven Oscars – for Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Effects, Sound Mixing, and Original Score – at the 86th Academy Awards, besides BAFTA, Golden Globe and other laurels.
In a dystopian future, hardy folk on an earth ravaged by blight, hit by dust storms and exhausted of resources, refuse to bow to despair. Instead, they travel through a wormhole in search of a new home for humanity. That is the take-off point for Interstellar (2014), starring Mathew McCounaughey, Anne Hathaway, Matt Damon, Michael Caine. But even the search for a habitable earth has a sub-plan: Taking the varied gene culture of humans to another planet and leave the humans to perish! NASA, it’d seem, has been sending manned missions to different planet requiring them to signal back when they find the signs of life and then go into cryo-sleep. One mission reaches a planet near Saturn. Now, on a planet with more gravity than earth Time slows down, so orbiting a few hours translates into years on earth… This combination of Space and Time Travel creates complexity in the script.
Director Christopher Nolan, renowned for his Batman series, filmed Interstellar with anamorphic 35 mm and IMAX 70 mm photography. He used extensive practical and miniature effects, while Double Negative created additional digital effects. He used two full and one dismantled robot. He featured three spaceships – one, which functions like a Space Shuttle that exits and enters planetary atmospheres; another, the crew’s mothership with cockpit, medical labs and habitation, modelled on the International Space Station; the third, a lifeboat in space, transporting capsules with colonisation equipment to planetary surfaces. However, to minimise the use of computer-generated imagery Nolan built interiors of a space shuttle. He filmed in Iceland where he could represent two extra-terrestrial planets: one covered in ice, another in water. He invited former astronaut Marsha Ivins to the set. He studied documentaries on space missions. Most of all, he had Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne as a scientific consultant who ensured that nothing violated established physical laws; that “even wild speculations sprung from science and not from the fertile mind of a screenwriter”. To create wormholes and rotating black holes Thorne collaborated with the visual effects supervisor and his full team.
The result? Interstellar won the Oscar for the Best Visual Effects at the 87th Academy Awards. More importantly, it won acclaim as the most ambitious and challenging sci-fi film since Kubrick’s 2001. For, effectively, it explored the relationship between science and humanities, and the symbiosis between science and faith, holding out the hope that even the end of the planet would not spell the end of everything.
A “straightforward and thrilling survival-and-rescue adventure, without the metaphysical and emotional trappings of Interstellar” – critics said when The Martian (2015) released. In this film Ridley Scott depicts the struggles of an astronaut who’s left behind on Mars, and NASA’s efforts to rescue him.
A strong dust-storm threatens to topple the Mars Ascent Vehicle, Ares III. When debris hits crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and he shows no sign of life, the mission commander orders immediate take-off to save the others. Watney wakes up to a low oxygen warning, returns to the base of operations, and realises his only chance of rescue is to catch Ares IV when it reaches a crater 2000 miles away in four years. To survive till then, he must improvise a farm inside the Hab by fertilizing Martian soil with human waste, produce water by extracting hydrogen from leftover rocket fuel, and utilise potatoes intended for Thanksgiving dinner. He must also modify the only functional rover in preparation of the long journey. Meanwhile, seeing evidence of Watney’s activities NASA realizes he has survived and prepares to deliver enough food to last him until Ares IV arrives…
The interior scenes of The Martian were shot in a wine-making village west of Budapest in Hungary. Potatoes were actually grown in a sound stage next to the one used for filming – in fact they were planted at different times to show different stages of growth. And the external scenes were filmed in Wadi Rum, a UNESCO world heritage site that was the location for other films set on Mars like Mission to Mars (2000), Red Planet (2000) and The Last Days on Mars (2013).
At the very outset the filmmakers had got NASA to assist with science and technology since The Martian had the potential to promote future missions to Mars. NASA answered hundreds of questions on everything from radioisotope systems to the look of “habs” – the residences for future Martians. It provided real images of Mars and of control centres. The process used by Watney to produce water is actually being used by NASA for a planned Martian rover. But Scott chose not to dwell on the gravitational difference between Mars and Earth: Martian gravity is less than 40 percent of Earth’s. So, in the final analysis, Watney is a space-age Robinson Crusoe, a human in full isolation but watched by various mission cameras. Being marooned in space this castaway can arrive at the basics of being human. The Martian is thus a dual journey – into the outer Universe; and into the inner consciousness.
The Martian (2015)
Note that, even if eventually humans emerge mightier, cleverer or sturdier than aliens, all the Space Travel tales awaken a sense of wonder at the magnitude and mystery of space. In this respect Arrival (2016) strikes a different note: it stresses the importance of language – a tool of communication, between humans or with extra-terrestrials.
Denis Villeneuve opens his tale with an alien race dropping anchor in 12 different cities across the globe. Amy Adams as linguist Louise Bank, who’s lecturing in a university, is whisked away by Army Colonel Weber to join a team, along with physicist Ian Donnelly, to decipher their language and find out why they’ve come to Earth. Brought to a US military camp in Montana near one alien spacecraft, they make contact with two seven-limbed presences on board. They call the extra-terrestrials “heptapods” and nickname them Abbott and Costello.
Louise discovers that they have a written language of complicated circular symbols, and begins to learn the symbols that correspond to a basic vocabulary. When she is able to ask what the aliens want, they answer: “offer weapon”. A similar translation “use weapon” is received by one of the other sites. Fear of a potential threat from the aliens leads other nations to close down communications on the project, and some prepare their military for attack. However, Louise thinks that the symbol interpreted as “weapon” might have an alternative translation such as “tool” or “technology”. Eventually the aliens give them a larger, more complex message. But as the military prepares to evacuate, following the explosion of a bomb planted by a rogue soldier, Ian works out that the symbols relate to the concept of time. And since Time is one-twelfth of the whole “gift”; they conclude that the aliens want the 12 nations to cooperate.
Though a science fiction, Arrival is less about technology and more about language. The script used language designed by artist Martine Bertrand. Three linguists from McGill University were consulted. The sound files for the alien language were created in consultation with a phonetics expert. A Canada Research Chair in Syntax and Indigenous Languages was consulted for her linguistics expertise during the finalization of the script. As such, despite the presence of aliens it has little action, more introspection, advocating humanity’s ability to work together. Small wonder it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2016.
Elliott, a lonely boy, befriends ET (1982) stranded on Earth. His siblings help him to hide the extra-terrestrial from their mom – and then from government agents while attempting to send ET home. The concept came from an imaginary friend Spielberg created after his parents divorced in 1960. Two decades later the friendship became a super-duper blockbuster that led to the creation of a video game, a theme park ride at the Universal Studios Florida, and finally entered the Library of Congress Register.
A group of alien botanists land in a California forest to collect samples. When government agents show up, they flee in their spaceship, leaving behind one of their own. A ten-year-old discovers him hiding in their toolshed and lures him to his bedroom. Next day Elliott feigns illness to stay home. His brother and sister meet ET and help in hiding him from their mom. When they ask ET about his origin, he swirls the balls to depict the solar system – and revives a dead chrysanthemum to show his purpose. Soon Elliott starts experiencing a psychic connection with ET and sets free the frogs in his biology class. ET picks up pieces of English and by watching TV he gets the idea of building a makeshift communication device to call home. But his health starts declining, so the children take him to the forest to make the call. Next morning both ET and Elliott are found dying. Meanwhile government agents invade their house….
It took three months and $1.5 million to create ET. The long neck was his USP but particular stress was laid in designing his eyes. The head was placed above that of two dwarfs and a 12-year-old born without legs who wore ET’s costume for the scenes where he walks awkwardly, runs, or falls. Everyone thought the ‘hideous creature’ would frighten children, even Spielberg thought “only his mother could love ET.” He went on to win hearts, accolades, millions of millions in dollars, and a premiere at Cannes film festival where cine-veterans felt Spielberg had put “breath-taking technical skills at the service of his deepest feelings.” At the Oscar ceremony E.T the Extra-Terrestrial bagged the trophies for Original Score, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects, Sir Richard Attenborough – who swept the major Oscars with Gandhi – described ET as “inventive, powerful, wonderful…”
E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
However Attenborough, like Martin Scorcese and Arthur C Clarke, pointed out the influence on ET of a Satyajit Ray script titled The Alien. The Indian giant himself is on record saying, “Spielberg’s film would not have been possible without my script being available throughout America in mimeographed copies” – since 1967, for a proposed Columbia production. The allegations gain credence when we learn that Satyajit Ray first wrote the story, Bankubabur Bandhu (Bankubabu’s Friend) in 1962, for the Bengali magazine Sandesh. In it a spaceship lands in a pond, and the villagers who can see only the top with a golden antenna start worshipping it as a temple risen from the earth. Meanwhile Haba, a mentally challenged teenager, meets an alien in the bamboo grove behind his house. Thus ensued a long tale of friendship between beings from two worlds – and a war of words between two filmmaking worlds that ended with The Alien being shelved but the Academy of Motion Pictures Sciences and Arts bestowing the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement on Ray in his deathbed.
As for Bankubabur Bandhu, it was made into a telefilm in (1986). And it influenced Koi… Mil Gaya (2003), the first Bollywood sci-fi directed by Rakesh Roshan. In it Hrithik Roshan, as an intellectually challenged school kid who befriends the visitor from outer space, parallels Ray’s protagonist while a scientist sending variations of the syllable ‘Om’ hoping to attract the attention of extra-terrestrial life echoes Close Encounters… But the Hindi film diverges from Spielberg when the mentally challenged kid presses those very notes while playing on the scientist’s abandoned computer, attracting the aliens.
One of the most daunting aspect of a science fiction coming true in real life is the vast distances involved – and with it the insurmountable obstacles in travelling to even the nearest space object. A writer’s imagination, on the other hand, is fuelled by these very problems – and so we have had Ramayan’s Pushpak Vimana and Jatayu clash in mid-space aeons before the Wright Brothers wrote their names into history. From metal rockets to hollowed out asteroids, from wormholes to meteorites – all have made their way into the space that is a writer’s imagination. For, that is probably the only thing that actually travels faster than light – everyday, in every part of the world, in every You and Me.
Koi…Mil Gaya (2003)
1, 2 and 3: Me and I, Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Devottam Sengupta (Hachette India, 2017)
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