In the lead-up to Ad Astra’s release, many have called it this year’s Interstellar. The two films boast some similarities—a title referencing stars, the prominence of a space-faring father’s relationship with his grown child, threats to the Earth’s environment—but the two projects are quite distinct from one another. Ultimately, the pervasive comparisons between Ad Astra and Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic are indicative of just how few space exploration movies set in the near future Hollywood has made.
I propose filmmakers produce more of them, particularly now.
Amid a broad library of sci-fi movies and shows set in space, there is a small number of them that take place less than a couple centuries away (unlike Star Trek, Firefly, The Expanse, set centuries into the future, and Star Wars, set a long time ago) and sans elements more fantastical than plausible: no monsters, no water that messes with your mind, no reigniting the sun.
Now, don’t take this to mean I’m uninterested in seeing any more wonderfully bonkers movies like Jupiter Ascending or horror space flicks like Alien and Life or all manner of films about what happens when space comes to us, like Arrival and Attack the Block. Please, keep making those. But there’s a dearth of films that take place within our own lifetime and depict space travel as something close to how it could really happen in the coming decades.
More, even just a few more, projects of this ilk on studios’ slates in the coming years could fuel public excitement for real-life journeys beyond our atmosphere at a crucial time for the future of space exploration.
As has been excellently examined in the Washington Post’s new podcast Moonrise, the popularization of science fiction as a genre from the 1930s through the 1950s deserves some credit for the successful funding of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. “No one is going to say that science fiction readers brought a man to the Moon all by themselves,” Isaac Asimov said in 1971, in archival tape featured on Moonrise, “but we can say that the kinds of science fiction that was published in 1940 helped prepare the public for the acceptance of programs to take a man to the Moon.” Sci-fi made today can do the same for 21st century space exploration.
We’re on the brink of a new era of manned space travel, after a relative dry spell since the end of the Space Race of the Cold War. A human hasn’t set foot on the Moon since 1972, NASA is far behind on a crewed mission to Mars that once had a launch date set for June 9, 1984, and NASA’s last Space Shuttle mission returned to Earth over eight years ago. The achievements and sacrifices of scientists, engineers, and astronauts contributing to work on the International Space Station and on robotic spacecraft are of course important, but there’s more work to be done, and it looks like, thanks to both the private industry and federally-funded agencies in various countries, we’ll finally be back on the Moon and beyond in the next few decades.
When it comes to space exploration—the research benefitting life on Earth as well as the steps taken to broaden what humans can call “home” (all done with risks assessed and ethical questions to consider)—there are some immediate and more long-term benefits to humanity. But compelling depictions of what space travel could look like in the short term have a particular, valuable power to ignite enthusiasm for missions to space being worked on right now.
Films that depict real-life 20th century space exploration (like Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, and First Man) have the capability to be awe-inspiring too, while movies depicting space travel in the near future can remind us that humans traveling thousands of miles beyond Earth isn’t just something of the past, nor is it something that only our descendants can look forward to. It’s something that we, the few generations alive today, will get to witness and experience—if space travel gets sufficient public support.
Let’s dive into five films that have contributed to this public support while also expertly entertaining us. These films—released within the past decade or so and set within the 21st century—also have a lot to say about other issues, like mass incarceration and climate change, while they venture toward the stars.
Best guess setting: 2013
Upon its release, Gravity could be said to take place anywhere between a very near future or very recent past, depending on how active you imagine NASA’s fictitious Space Shuttle missions to be in the world of the film. (The Shuttle mission in the film is called STS-157—in reality, the last NASA Shuttle mission, STS-135, launched in July 2011.) It’s the rare fictional space travel film that may not merit the label “sci-fi.”
Gravity is not the kind of movie that makes you want to go to outer space. “I hate space,” declares Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone after miraculously surviving a second debris cloud 240 miles above Earth, when she has plenty of adversities yet to face. Gravity is, however, the kind of movie that can make you appreciate the courage of real-life astronauts who embark on missions that are always dangerous on some level. It gives us the chance to, from the safety of solid ground, vicariously experience astronauts’ admittedly enviable workplace surroundings (“Can’t beat the view,” George Clooney’s character points out) and a heart-pounding struggle to survive a spacewalk-gone-wrong.
Director Duncan Jones’ first feature presents Earth’s nearest celestial body as a source for clean energy, with Lunar Industries mining helium-3 from the Moon’s soil. Ultimately, we find out that the corporation has done some wild labor cost-cutting and thrown ethics to the wind to make its fortune. Moon functions as both a compelling sci-fi mystery/thriller and as a forewarning of corporate corruption in space ventures of the future. With Sam Rockwell in one of the very best performances of his career as the Sam Bell clones, Moon shows how a three-year, solitary contract in space can change a man, for better and for worse.
Moon also delivers some food for thought about artificial intelligence and human cloning. GERTY, the base’s AI, is Jones’ response to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL. The film keeps you guessing about whether GERTY will ultimately be loyal to Sam Bell(s) or to Lunar Industries, and by the end, AI and clone find they have a few things in common. In their final interaction, Sam insists, “GERTY, we’re not programmed. We’re people, you understand?”
The Martian (2015)
A thrilling, rousing portrayal of human resilience, The Martian is largely memorable for smart-ass, ever-optimistic Mark Wantey, the astronaut-botanist left behind on Mars, played by Matt Damon and created by author Andy Weir. His relentless problem-solving and his eagerness to make the best of this weird opportunity to explore the beautiful vistas of Mars drummed up more excitement for humankind to achieve that long-awaited first step on Mars. But it’s the characters and events back on Earth that are illuminating of the realities of space research, while also delivering exhilarating depictions of brilliant minds in collaboration. Potential impacts to public opinion and to Congressional funding are considered every step of the way in saving Watney. By the film’s end, there’s inspiring cooperation between NASA and the China National Space Administration, and the whole world is cheering for both Watney’s safe return and, later, for the successful funding and launch of the another mission to Mars.
Best guess setting: 2070s
“We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it,” Professor Brand (Michael Caine) declares in Interstellar, in the underground facility of what remains of NASA. Public opinion doesn’t allow funding space exploration during a worldwide food crisis, and school textbooks spread the lie that the Apollo missions were fake.
The tesseract in Interstellar’s emotional end is more the stuff of bizarre fantasy than of plausibility, but the rest of the film is based in a lot of real science and confronts real-world concerns for life on Earth in the late 21st century. John Lithgow’s character, a member of the only generation still alive that remembers Earth as Interstellar’s 2014 audience know it, is likely of Gen Z or perhaps the youngest Millennials (he says there were 6 billion people on Earth when he was a kid). One wonders, if space exploration isn’t funded in the wake of the Blight in Interstellar, what will become of NASA and other space agencies when we’re dealing with the serious consequences of climate change? Interstellar gets us thinking about our past, present, and future: about the Dust Bowl and the Irish Potato Famine, about our our actions (and inactions) today, and about whether (and how) our species’ existence will continue when this planet becomes less hospitable.
High Life (2019)
Best guess setting: late 21st century
A moody, disturbing, often-twisted film, French director Clare Denis’ English-language debut depicts an ill-advised response to the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S.: convicts with death sentences are offered a “second chance,” sent on a one-way research trip through our solar system. A spacecraft crewed solely by convicted criminals—at least some of whom have done violent crimes—proves to be as bad an idea as it sounds. The non-linear film begins with Robert Pattinson’s character apparently the only survivor of the mission—the horrors that resulted in the deaths of the others are soon revealed.
It may seem odd to regard this bleak film as a contribution to inspiring real-life space exploration, but consider this: High Life can make you grateful that, for now, we leave research beyond Earth’s atmosphere to the paid professionals trained in the scientific method.
Emily Rome is a journalist who has written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, HitFix, Inverse, and Mental Floss.