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A scene from the 2014 space-travel film Interstellar. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

In awe of the cosmos

New astronomical discoveries are inspiring movie directors to boldly go where no filmmaker has gone before

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Science fiction movies have long spurred fantasies about exploring outer space and encountering extraterrestrials. But recent astronomical breakthroughs — including the Hubble Space Telescope’s discovery of hundreds of planets outside Earth’s solar system and a South African super-telescope’s revelation of more than a thousand galaxies — are inspiring contemporary filmmakers to ponder the astonishing promises of the universe.

A slew of recent Hollywood films celebrate what American astronomer Carl Sagan once described as the “magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science.” Like real-life astronomy, these films not only provide glimpses of supernovae and nebulae, but also depict a cosmos that’s far more vast and rich than anyone ever imagined. What’s more, they embrace the likelihood that other intelligent life exists, asking questions about where we may have come from and ultimately redefining what it means to be human.   

The notion that space holds much significance has long been championed by Star Trek, one of the most successful science fiction film and television series. Its 50th anniversary last year was marked by a 13th film instalment: Star Trek Beyond. In the opening, Starfleet’s Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise are in the middle of their five-year diplomatic voyage to “strange new worlds.” They’re inexplicably attacked by the megalomaniac Krall (Idris Elba) and marooned on a rather unwelcoming planet. By the end of the action-packed movie, a previously ambivalent Kirk chooses to remain in Starfleet as it departs on yet another mission. 

In a 1988 interview for the Star Trek: The Next Generation DVD, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991, said that his series makes the point “that there is a tomorrow” and that our push into space will lead to rousing new discoveries.

Star Trek Beyond followed the box office and critical success of the 2014 film Interstellar, which takes place on an ecologically ravaged Earth 50 years in the future. Crops are failing. Food is scarce. Billions die as a result, leaving the surviving population unable to look forward. Interestingly, it’s a world in which NASA’s Apollo missions of the 1960s are described in textbooks as mere hoaxes. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), the protagonist, tells his father-in-law (John Lithgow) early on in the film. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” 

A NASA pilot-turned-corn farmer, Cooper stumbles upon a top-secret government project and joins a crew that seeks refuge on three potentially habitable planets. To do this, they must travel through a newly discovered wormhole, transcending three-dimensional ways of interpreting the universe. They must also extend their empathy “beyond [their] line of sight” to every being on Earth.

A scene from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Photo by CP Images

Interstellar director Christopher Nolan’s ideas about humans rising to meet the challenges of human-made catastrophes echo those of leading cosmologist Joel R. Primack and philosopher Nancy Ellen Abrams, who co-wrote the 2006 book The View from the Center of the Universe. “As cosmic phenomena living in a cosmically pivotal moment, we must elevate our thinking to the level that our times demand,” they write. “We’ve got to undergo a transition in the next generation or two, from exponential use of resources on the planet to more sustainable relationships.”

Another film that offers this kind of rumination — along with intergalactic spectacle — is Prometheus (2012). A sequel to the 1979 film Alien, the story follows archeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in 2089. She explores a cave in the Scottish highlands and finds a star map, presumably left on Earth by aliens. With the map in hand, Shaw boards the spaceship Prometheus in hopes of reaching a distant planet — and even meeting the so-called Engineers.

The film, by Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott, goes on to pose deep, metaphysical questions about non-human life in the outer reaches of space: Do they share our compulsion to leap into new frontiers? Do they continually move the boundaries of what’s possible? Perhaps more importantly, Prometheus attempts to answer whether or not aliens and Earthlings can appeal to each other’s better natures.

When it was first released, Prometheus was compared to the still wondrous, if not mystifying, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). That film, based on an Arthur C. Clarke short story, capitalized on the awe of the Apollo missions and their relevation of the sheer grandeur of outer space. The movie begins with the appearance of a mysterious monolith among pre-evolutionary humans roughly four million years ago. Then, in the 21st century, two more artifacts are discovered — one buried deep under the moon’s surface and the other placed in Jupiter’s orbit. They’re programmed to send word of humankind’s first steps into the solar system and beyond. When astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) eventually reaches Jupiter, the third artifact whisks him through a yawning, eye-dazzling star gate. Over time, it propels him on a journey through untold galaxies, transforming him into a star child who’s meant to usher in the next stage of human evolution.

In a 1972 interview for Rolling Stone, 2001 director Stanley Kubrick (who died in 1999) said that “on the deepest psychological level, the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God.” Indeed, it succeeds in stirring up those yearnings, whether religious or spiritual. It reinforces the feeling that there is a higher purpose behind humanity’s ascension to the stars.

Thanks to the very latest cosmological discoveries — and films like Star Trek that continue “to boldly go where no one has gone before” — humankind is able to look at the cosmos with even wider eyes, appreciating the true vastness and richness of outer space. 

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