Wednesday, 26 February 2014

A Look a Hard Science Fiction


As you may have gathered from reading this blog, I am a huge fan of science fiction, but one area in particular that I find interesting is the genre known as hard sci-fi. This is a very unique kind of brand, and one which is not commonly explored. I myself have even made a few efforts to contribute to this especially fascinating genre.

So let's look at what exactly defines hard science fiction. In short, it is a science fiction story like any other, but one which actively makes an effort to be as realistic as possible. Films of this sort attempt to incorporate actual science and when speculation is required they attempt to provide the most plausible version of how a scenario could play out.

Now one of the most famous writers of hard science fiction is Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote a variety of novels and short stories, many of which incorporated the most accurate science available when trying to envision the future. It is only fitting therefore that Clarke went on to become a technical advisor on arguably one of the best examples of hard science fiction in film: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Speaking of sci-fi writers, it would also be worthwhile to bring up another case: Robert A. Heinlein (the original author of Starship Troopers), who also served as a technical consultant for one of the first hard science fiction films: George Pal's 1950 blockbuster Destination Moon. This was one of the first efforts to realistically envision the future of space travel. It might not be perfect, especially in light of the actual moon landings, but a lot of the basic scientific concepts still hold up surprisingly well.

This of course brings us to George Pal's other hard science fiction movie, the 1955 box office catastrophe Conquest of Space. This one also may be in no way perfect, but as an early attempt it does make a reasonable effort and may well have paved the way for later science fiction movies. I have previously analyzed this one in greater depth on its own, but here I can point out that this is one of the first to introduce the concept of a wheel-shaped space station, and idea that would later be popularized by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

To help round out the selection of films, we can look at something a bit more recent, and there are a few options to choose from. One of the best science fiction films in recent years is Carl Sagan's Contact, starring Jodie Foster. Though it deals with an age-old question (are we alone in the universe?), it is noteworthy both for providing realistic circumstances by which the discovery could be made, and also exploring the social and political consequences that realistically stem from finding solid evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

To finish off the comparison, I also have three other movies from more recently. The first of these is the recent movie Gravity, a very thoroughly-researched science fiction movie centered on astronauts trapped in orbit after their ship is destroyed. I also have Duncan Jones' 2009 film Moon, along with the more recent independent film Europa Report.

Now a full comparison is a tricky task. I can say it is very likely some of these films have had a major influence on one another, as you can see similarities upon close examination. A simple example would be to compare Moon's GERTY and 2001's HAL 9000.

You might notice a strong resemblance between both. In particular is the distinct "eye" and monotone voice. Also an interesting case in that Moon works this to its advantage. The fact that GERTY so obviously resembles HAL throws us off somewhat, especially with clues towards him having a hidden agenda. It makes it all the more surprising when GERTY turns out to be extremely helpful.

In both cases, it was a fault in programming due to human error (conflicting orders in the case of HAL combined with fear of being disconnected, and an unforseen loophole in GERTY's programming that allows him to act against his superiors), but while the outcome of one was frightening the outcome of the other was actually quite emotional.

On a related note, we can also look at how the Moon has been depicted over time across various works of hard science fiction. Destination Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Moon all aimed to present realistic visions of the lunar surface. In Destination Moon, we get an idea of what seemed like a reasonable idea of what the lunar surface might have looked like before we had actually launched anything into space. You can see some mistakes in the cracked ground and jagged mountains, however.

2001: A Space Odyssey was released only a year before the first moon landing. You'll notice its vision is far closer to the reality. Some of the jagged mountains are still present, but not as strong.

By the time we get to Moon, we have much clearer pictures of the lunar surface. The shots of a mostly smooth plane with small hills and craters is probably the closest to the photos of the actual moon.

However, far more interesting is to look at how the moon is treated in each of these films. Destination Moon was released before the moon landings, 2001: A Space Odyssey only a year early, and Moon a great deal of time afterwards.

In Destination Moon, the lunar surface is seen as an undiscovered country, the successful journey to which would be the greatest triumph of humanity (certainly the mindset during the Apollo Missions). In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we get to see a possible vision of where humanity could go after landing on the moon. The characters act as though living there is an everyday occurrence, but Kubrick still aims to impress us with the technology available in his world.

On the other hand, by the time we get to Moon, there's a very different outlook on living there. Sam Bell displays none of the excitement of sense of adventure felt by the heroes of Destination Moon. Instead, working on the moon is treated as a dull and boring job, as well as one that is excruciatingly lonely. To sum up simply: in Destination Moon, the protagonists start off on Earth and want to get to the moon. In Moon, the protagonist starts off on the moon and wants to get back to Earth.

On a related note, we could also compare similarities in plots. I have previously reviewed both Europa Report and Conquest of Space favorably, but when I was watching the former there were moments where I began to wonder if there was influence from the latter.

One area where I couldn't help finding this was a little trick used in both to create a sense of disorientation (though a little more sophisticated in Europa Report). The launch sequences of both films use an interesting series of shots to create a sense of disorientation within the weightless environment of their respective spaceships.

With these two cases, you get an interesting composition. For most of the film, the part that is usually the "bottom" relative to the camera during scenes on these ships is the back of the vehicle. This, however, creates an interesting effect when we see the "bottom" appearing to be the background, while the crew members in the foreground appear to be the right way up. 

Also, if you look closely there are details that help to indicate this (you may notice the seemingly horizontal ladder in the still from Conquest of Space, while in Europa Report you can see four of the crew sitting on what appears to be the background) 

Also interestingly, though this may be little more than coincidence, I couldn't help noticing some similarities between their endings. In both films, there is a problem with the mission that leaves the protagonists stranded at their destination for longer than originally planned (sabotage by the commander in the case of Conquest of Space, technical problems in Europa Report).

Still, what was more interesting was the efforts to get off. The outcome is very different, but the basic set-up is surprisingly similar. The climax of Conquest of Space has the heroes finally reaching a possible launch window and attempting to take off. Unfortunately, there is a sudden, really inconveniently timed Earthquake which causes the ship to tip over, with the danger of possibly falling under the ground. Fortunately, they are able to re-stabilize and take off.

Europa Report had a somewhat similar predicament in its climax. The remaining crew attempt to relaunch only to crash down onto another part of Europa, this time with much thinner ice (also an area where they already lost one member of the crew). Like Conquest of Space, there is danger in the remaining members of the crew having to figure out how to get off the moon before their ship sinks under the surface. 

The difference is that unlike the previous film, the crew fail to accomplish this. Two of them fall under the ice while trying to repair the ship outside and the third crew member presumably drowns when the ship is flooded, but in her final moments she is able to record proof of multicellular life under the surface of Europa.

On a similar level, we can also compare the climactic sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. Both are incredibly realistic interpretations of scientific discoveries, but there is a peculiar quality to the climax. Both films see their respective protagonists being sent on a strange journey through space by way of some form of dimensional gateway, at the end of which they experience a surreal encounter. Out of these two, Contact's is arguably the more straight forward as some explanation is offered, in contrast to the more ambiguous nature of 2001 which has baffled many a first-time viewer.

In both cases, we do get a sort of meeting with the aliens discovered in each film. However, neither one opts to actually show the aliens. Instead, both Dave Bowman and Ellie Arroway are transported to a strange world seemingly created specifically for them. Most likely this is done by the aliens to allow the human protagonists some degree of comfort in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. In Contact, Ellie is brought to a recreation of a drawing she made as a child based on her imagination of what Pensacola, Florida might look like. In 2001, it is depicted as a stylized hotel room. 

However, the actual confrontations are notably different in both films. In neither case do we see the aliens, but in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they seem to be more interested in observing Dave, while in Contact they are willing to confront Ellie directly (though appearing as a replication of her father). 

Throughout the final scene of 2001 you can hear strange ominous voices (possibly the aliens), and it appears Dave is being kept under observation. It is hard to tell precisely what is happening to him as we see him encountering increasingly older versions of himself, but in the end, as he lies dying, he finally gets a direct interaction with the aliens: he sees the monolith and it transforms into the next stage of human evolution.

This brings an interesting contrast in the motivations of the aliens despite their similar methods. Those of Contact are interested in... well... contacting humanity but wish to take it in steps. Those of 2001 are harder to explain, but while they seem to be interested in humanity, they are less willing to confront us directly so much as observe and to an extent guide our evolution from a distance.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this long-winded ramble about random facts comparing various hard science fiction films released between 1950 and 2013. Perhaps you have some hard science fiction films you've noticed some interesting things about. Maybe you'd like to compare something else about some of the films I've discussed or you've noticed something interesting about some other hard science fiction film I failed to reference. If you do you can share your thoughts in the comments.

I was hoping to find something to say about Gravity. Since I haven't been able to work that one in, here's a good picture I found from that movie. I can let you compare the film's depiction of weightlessness to several other hard science fiction films:

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