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.