Yesterday I wrote about one of the themes of this past weekend’s SpaceUp unconference, specifically about the need for/lack of human connection to astronauts and those adventurers entering and living in space right now. Another link in this chain between people-on-the-ground and space that was spoken of during at least two sessions was the way that the subject of space and living in space (and/or visiting other planets, moons, etc.) is broached in Hollywood. One session on Sunday was, in fact, subtitled “Can Hollywood get it right? Must Hollywood get it right?”
There was some debate on the answer. There are a lot of factors at stake here that have, seemingly, little to do with the topic of space specifically (the demographic of the projected audience; whether the topic is salient with regards to politics or popular opinion; what is currently selling). For the most part, the answers were Yes and Yes. What we come back to is the story. That sounds like such a cliche! Still, many felt that with a current emphasis in movies on big visual effects and little human interest or intelligent plot, sometimes it is the human story that gets sacrificed, and when a space-themed or space-situated movie is attempted there is often a mistaken focus on the odd/alien aspects or the futuristic hardware/AI. While there were many disparate opinions throughout the sessions I attended with regards to why some themes work and some don’t, most seemed to agree that without a story with well-drawn characters with whom to identify, it was very difficult to maintain sufficient suspension of disbelief or even to care what happened (even with very keen special effects).
This may sound like I’m beating a familiar drum. But I was surprised, and this is why. When I wrote yesterday, I mentioned feeling somewhat like a fish out of water, in that despite my interest I have not historically been active in the “space community” (for lack of a better term?) and I just didn’t feel like I had space cred. I will admit that I fully expected each person who showed up to have a physics degree. (Seriously. Not joking even a little. Okay, maybe the volunteers, but that’s just because they don’t have them yet.) I expected everyone to be all about the engineering, the “how” and to some extent “when,” and to be all about the stuff, thrusters and stages and fuel. I can’t add a lot to that conversation.*
But I have a feeling there weren’t quite that many physics degrees in the room… and some of them were owned by people who don’t do physics anymore, no more than I do. Whether they were present or not, many there seemed to take great interest in how we “practice space,” the perceptions of getting there and being there, of what it will be like to be Jo(e) Astronaut stepping onto Martian soil… and then what? What does our plucky protagonist find, sure, but how does he feel? Is he lonely? Does she worry about things? What things? We want to know about the soil and potential microbial life and colony building, yes, of course… but we also want to know how people respond to life in this strange new way of living, and it has to feel authentic so that we can picture ourselves in these situations too. Then it becomes part of imagination’s landscape. Then it becomes as real as Plymouth to pilgrims preparing for the New World, as real as flight to early aviators-to-be, as real as a space station to kids listening to Tom Corbett, Space Cadet radio shows in the 1950s. As real as a flip-top communication device to the writers of Star Trek in the 60s. As real.
My imagination is pretty good. So I’ll tell future Hollywood movie producers this: if you make a movie that is intriguing, funny, thoughtful, and just happens to be set not in the old West or current-day Manhattan but near-future space, I’ll pay my exorbitant fare and come see. I want to be out there, and everyone knows that the next best thing is going to the movies.
*Though watching some of the hardware guys become, well, passionate about their arguments was pretty fun.