In a year of countless brilliant and industry-shaking films and TV shows, a trend seems to be emerging. An interest in humans in space has gripped the industry, and it doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.
Science Fiction has long been a popular genre, but arguably in the past decade or so there’s been somewhat of a disinterest in media about or set in space. The depiction of humans leaving Earth and the challenges that follow have been a little sparse, especially against a mixed-bag of franchise films and hit shows.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been some excellent contributions to the sub-genre in recent years. There is, of course, 2014’s Interstellar, 2015’s The Martian, 2016’s Passengers, as well as 2017’s Life. While the first two were celebrated examinations of humans versus space, the latter were less successful, and perhaps for good reason. Passengers’ concept was exciting, but it didn’t realize it was in fact a ‘horror movie’, while Life bored audiences with its unoriginal narrative.
“While the topic of humans in space hasn’t died, it’s certainly been in the background”
Further, there have been the reboots and spin-offs in the Star Wars franchise, which, though polarising, have clung to the intergalactic world which first graced our screens in 1977. So while the topic of humans in space hasn’t died, it’s certainly been in the background. Now, however, it looks like room is being made for a comeback, and 2018 has certainly shown itself as the beginning of this new trend.
The year has had its fair share of films and television shows that have been about the human side of space exploration and invasion. Alex Garland’s thriller Annihilation, which fell along the same route as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) in its exploration of the relativity of the human experience opened the year. Following behind was First Man, starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, which, though perhaps a quiet entry into the canon, explored the realities of the moon landing on Neil Armstrong and those around him. While Channel 4’s brand-new and ambitious The First (Sean Penn, Natasha McElhone) explores the trials of getting humans to Mars.
“Realism and existentialism has pushed its way into the forefront”
What connects these examples, and suggests a resurgence in the genre, is a focus on the human side of epic, interplanetary narratives. Realism and existentialism has pushed its way into the forefront, elbowing aside glossy blockbusters to ask big questions about big ideas. These films and shows aren’t afraid to show the terror of space exploration, but are equally as eager to show the humanity of it.
The trend seems to be continuing into the next few years. High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth, suggests a thrilling examination of space survival, while the Timothée Chalamet-starred Dune looks to be a promising adaptation in 2019. Also in the works is Star Wars: Episode IX, season 2 of family drama Lost in Space, and the upcoming adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Nightflyers.
“film and television have mirrored real-life politics since the beginning”
There are multiple reasons for this human focus. It may just be a lucky (or unlucky) convergence of multiple, similar projects, a phenomenon known as ‘Twin Films’. But culture and society have always been intertwined, echoing each other, and film and television have mirrored real-life politics since the beginning.
The recent success of the SpaceX launches and Elon Musk’s loud and ambitious plans to die on Mars have catapulted the idea of humans in space into the public consciousness in a way that perhaps hasn’t been the case in a long while. It’s been acknowledged that ‘space interest rests on scientific discovery and adventure’; a decline in public interest contributes to a decrease in funding and a consequential slow-down in technological productivity and innovation. SpaceX has bucked this trend, and it shows in popular culture.
“our real-life concerns become realised through fiction”
Another pertinent factor feeding into this resurgence includes Donald Trump’s announcing of a ‘space force’, which, while ridiculed, certainly poses questions as to the future of space travel. Increased discussion over socio-political topics such as climate change, artificial intelligence, and genetic modification have also influenced film and television, as our real-life concerns become realised through fiction.
Sci-Fi is constantly evolving, but it looks to be travelling in a direction away from Earth. Recent and upcoming releases reflect this, suggesting not only a shift in Hollywood’s commitment to exploring the stories of humans in space, but perhaps a renewal in public interest as well.