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Promise of Science: Space Travel

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Leaving the planet Earth is one of the first motifs to appear in science fiction film -- in fact, the first film to be labelled science fiction is about travelling from the Earth to the Moon. Although the enabling technology for manned space flight was not developed and put to use until 1961, science fiction film was actively visualizing space travel from its very beginnings.

In Voyage dans la Lune (1902, France), a group of adventurers build a great space gun and are shot to the moon in a hard-cased shell that strongly resembles a rocket. Science in this film is not taken very seriously; like many early films, Voyage dans la Lune is fanciful rather than serious. The adventurers encounter the strange inhabitants of the moon and eventually fall back to Earth unharmed.

The space travelling rocket lands in the eye of the man in the moon.

A somewhat more realistic enabling technology for space flight is rocketry, which appeared in the film Woman in the Moon (Die Frau im mond) (1928, Germany). Although many aspects of this film's story are completely fantastic (such as men walking on the moon without space suits), the affair of space travel is serious and attempts to be true to known science. To ensure accuracy (and the legitimacy of the film), the film's director, Fritz Lang, consulted real rocket experts during the film's production (Gunn, 168). The concept of a launch countdown was created for this film, and later became a standard for real-life launches.

Destination Moon (1950, US) is a depiction of the first moon landing, 19 years before the real-life event. It is more serious than the films that come before it, and attempts to be even more scientifically correct and realistic. Fantastic events such as those found in Woman in the Moon are non-existent in this film.

The first film to explore the solar system beyond the moon is Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924, Russia). This film takes place in an interplanetary future where the lovely (and oppressive) Queen Aelita rules the planet Mars. A Moscow engineer has recurring dreams of her, and builds a rocketlike space ship that he can use to find her. A group of men travel to Mars, where they encounter a full-blown society of Martians led by the Queen.

The flying saucer from Earth.

Interstellar space flight is portrayed imaginatively in Forbidden Planet (1956, US). This film is set far in the future, when men have explored many of the far reaches of the universe. Unlike many of this film's predecessors, rockets are not used for space travel. Instead, a flying saucer (complete with artificial gravity unit and hyper-drive) is uthe vehicle of choice.

Space travel is not the central event of this film, as it is in previous films. Travelling through space is nothing special to the people in the film. It is merely another aspect of life in the future, similar in function to today's methods of transportation. Instead of being manned by a small group of adventurers or scientists like the films we have examined so far, the crew of the saucer is similar to the crew of a military boat. Responsibilities are divided between a captain, first mate, communications officer, cook, etc.

The eqipment encountered in the saucer is pristine, ubiquitous and works perfectly. Human technology does not fail its users.

Pristine space technology is also seen in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, US), a film that brings a new style of realism to space travel. Instead of relying on fantastic technology, 2001 attempts to stick true to known science. Space shuttles are not powered with hyperdrives, and artificial gravity is attained through centrifugal force instead of mysterious "artificial gravity units."

The earth-to-moon space shuttle, space station, and interplanetary space ship are all clean, boring, and perfectly maintained. These vessels also bring a new level of realism through ubiquituity to space travel that has not been seen in other films. Like Forbidden Planet, space travel is an unexciting event -- in fact, there could hardly be anything more boring. It is merely another tiring aspect of everyday life.

2001 successfully emphasizes the enormity and monotony of outer space. Travelling around the solar system (or even the universe) is an event that is both exciting and quickly accomplished in most science fiction films. In the world of 2001, nothing could be more boring than floating through space. Everything is quiet, human interaction is kept to a minimum, and a seemingly immeasurable amount of time is spent getting from one place to another. This film is incredibly successful at passing the experience of slow, boring space travel on to the viewer.

The wheel-shaped space station slowly spins in space.

Star Wars (1977, US) is much more concerned with excitement and storytelling than science. In this film, man has explored the far reaches of the galaxy, and is capable of travelling at unimaginable speeds. Again, space travel is merely another aspect of everyday life -- but rather than being dull and monotonous, it is exciting and fresh.

It is also dirty and unreliable. Unlike the pristine technology encountered in Forbidden Planet and 2001, the technology of Star Wars is old and subject to failure. Wear and tear is evident on almost every piece of equipment, including space transportation vehicles. These vessels come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, each serving a different purpose. Such a wide and imaginative array of space vehicles is not seen in many films.

As technology advanced, the limits of the imagination of moviegoers expanded. The scope of physical space in films involving space travel has expanded gradually over the past century, moving from the confines of the Earth and Moon through our solar system and out into the universe. Today's films continue to push the limits of known science, exploring new horizons in theoretical astronomy and physics.

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Further Resources
(See also the complete references and resources list.)

  1. Dirks, Tim. "A Trip to the Moon," Filmsite. (1996) (date accessed: 7/1/99)

  2. Hamilton, Calvin J. "History of Space Exploration," Views of the Solar System.: Hawaiian Astronomical Society (1999) (date accessed: 7/1/99)

  3. Lefcowitz, Eric. "Woman in the Moon: The Movie that Launched a Rocket," Retro Future. (5/17/99) (date accessed: 8/1/99)

  4. Wade, Mark. Encyclopedia Astronautica. (1999) (date accessed: 8/1/99)

. erika . .
. last modified: Jul 20, 2000 .