Space movies in the age of Elon Musk

Thomas McMullan

Thomas McMullan says that ‘First Man’ is a world apart from SpaceX and Trump’s Space Force

12 October 2018 07:43

Rockets were made for the big screen. The growth of spaceflight in the 20th Century ran parallel to that of blockbuster films. The sublime spectacle of it. The escapism. The optimism. The serious endeavours of NASA were fuel for space operas and sci-fi horrors, historical dramas and existential ponderings.

The relationship was flipped when Elon Musk flung his cherry-red Tesla Roadster beyond Earth’s atmosphere, as part of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy test flight in February. Here was a car, framed against the backdrop of our planet; a mannequin snug in the driver’s seat, one hand on the wheel, the other louchely resting on the door. It was as though the entrepreneur were transplanting a road-trip comedy into space. The movies were the fuel.

How is Hollywood itself responding to this new era of space travel? With a renewed interest in the glory days. First Man opens in cinemas today. It’s directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, and tells the story of Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission. Up to now, film has taken an indirect view of the moon landings, focusing instead on the lesser known figures such as Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, in Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995), or the early-days Project Mercury, in The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983). More room for a writer to manoeuvre, perhaps, given how iconic Armstrong’s achievements and utterances have been in the public imagination.

First Man’s emphasis on gritty authenticity is a stark contrast to the playful ease of Musk’s orbiting Roadster.

But now Armstrong is front and centre, and there’s enough historical distance for a filmmaker to challenge our received wisdom about people and events. There’s a lot of defamiliarisation going on, from how physically volatile breaching the atmosphere is shown to be, to how lo-fi and industrial the technology seems. First Man makes the gulf between 2018 and 1969 clear, and its emphasis on gritty authenticity is a stark contrast to the playful ease of Musk’s orbiting Roadster. If that stunt was a cheeky pull on the visual language of motion pictures, First Man distances itself from the sci-fi shorthand that’s so embedded in the public imagination, of spaceships soaring majestically away from our planet, so blue and so calm.

In response to the controversy about the film not including a shot of the American flag being planted into the surface of the moon, Chazelle said: ‘My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon.’ It’s an aim that shares something with Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures (2016), which tells the story of the black female mathematicians and engineers Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and their work with NASA in the Sixties. Both films, in their own way, defamiliarise and re-authenticate the space race at a time when the industry is shifting gears.

‘This era [of the 1960s] is an ideal one for revisionism and examination that reflects whatever the cultural impulse is of the moment,’ says Joe Pappalardo, author of Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight. ‘The US moonshot is a critical cultural touchpoint for Americans, so it’s no surprise that it’s used as a mirror for the nation to hold up and examine itself.’

Cold War dynamics famously underpinned the space race, but compared to the uncertain ground of Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia, the pre-internet politics of the 1960s seem relatively clear-cut. Films like First Man and Hidden Figures complicate and find depth in these narratives, but they ultimately speak of a time when there was a sense of unified progress, a tangible ambition to put boots on extraterrestrial ground.

Trailer for ‘First Man’ (Damien Chazelle, 2018)

However, the artist and filmmaker Michael Benson – author of the recent Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece – reckons that historical space films have a philosophical appeal, as well as a political one. ‘We’re living in a largely secular era, and yet of course these rather large mysteries remain, about the universe, about our position within it,’ he says. ‘The effort to explore the space around us taps into some of that quest for meaning.’

‘Meaning’ in its looser, existential sense can be easier to grip than the tangle of meanings that flit daily through a newsfeed. The philosopher Louis Marin, writing about Thomas Moore’s Utopia, claimed that, ‘Catastrophe is the sublime way to open a neutral space, one that is absolutely different.’ In other words, a catastrophe has a way of flattening out the complexities of the world. Space flight perhaps serves a similar function, where national tensions momentarily fall away in the rocket smoke.

The strange thing is, Elon Musk’s orbiting car managed this in a way that spaceflight missions arguably haven’t since the 1960s and 1970s. It was impressive. It crossed borders. The private space industry has changed the manner in which rockets are launched, and companies such as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are only continuing to make spaceflight cheaper and more accessible. ‘Bombast aside, launching that car was a feat of engineering that is a step toward opening deep space to the entire planet,’ says Pappalardo. ‘SpaceX launches actual missions to an actual space station, and is planning to fly people next year.’

If we’re pivoting from national space programmes to an open market on space travel, what does that do to the figure of the astronaut? It’s telling that Chazelle’s film chooses to portray Armstrong and his colleagues as dogged and tense, perpetually a hairbreadth from death. It’s the polar opposite of that louche arm on a car door, and it grapples with the reality of early space travel at a time when the space industry itself seems unreal, like something pulled from a movie. If SpaceX gets its way, after all, a 42-year-old art collector could make a lunar trip with eight artists in 2023; a far cry from the early days of the space programme. They should send a poet, of course.

Global politics are giving rise to the idea of space as a battleground.

And this is only one side of the industry. Outside of the private sector, things are arguably even more film-like. The steady deterioration in the relationship between the US and Russia, as well as the growth of China’s anti-satellite systems, is giving rise to the idea of space as a battleground. In August, the Trump administration announced plans for a military branch dedicated to fighting wars in space, dubbed Space Force. Officials describe it as an ‘elite group of war fighters specialising in the domain of space’.

‘It may not be the right solution,’ says Pappalardo, ‘but it’s grounded in real fears that new weapons will blunt the edge of the US military, which relies on satellites for navigation, precision weapon guidance and communications – everything it needs to project power across the globe.’

As the space industry evolves, and as the US’s position as a global leader in this arena is contested, First Man serves to underline the reality of the 1960s space race. That era’s futurism now belongs to the past, and in its place comes a new public imagination, of orbiting cars, lunar artists and militarised space forces.

‘We want a new space race,’ Musk told a press conference following the Falcon Heavy launch. ‘Races are exciting.’