Saturday, 10 May 2014

Fears of Exploration and Discovery

In 1950, American producer George Pal, in collaboration with director Irving Pichel, released the blockbuster film Destination Moon, in which four brave men have to face various challenges in the pursuit of being the first to land on the surface of the moon. This film marked the beginning of science fiction's popularity on film starting in the 1950's. Before that, science fiction had established itself as a literary genre but aside from exceptions such as Metropolis was very rarely seen on film.

With Destination Moon, George Pal sought to capture the imaginations of viewers with a surprising degree of scientific realism (to the point where a lot of the science referred to, at least in theory, still holds up alright today). A few years later Pal would attempt a similar, though perhaps more ambitious project with the 1955 science fiction film Conquest of Space, which was ultimately a box office disaster. In that film, Pal took the idea of a space expedition to the next level, envisioning the first manned mission to Mars.

With both these films there is a clear message to be gained. They provided an optimistic view of scientific progress and suggested that the moon, the planets, and everything beyond could be ours for the taking. It is therefore strange that, despite playing a major role in launching the science fiction genre, very few of the subsequent films seemed to follow the idea of Destination Moon. I have previously discussed the surprising popularity of the "Space Disaster' movie (of which both Destination Moon and Conquest of Space could be considered examples) , and in some ways that concept overlaps here.

So we see with these two films this vision of men (this was still the 1950's) going out and claiming other worlds for humanity. However, many other films seemed to have the opposite view. Also popular in the 1950's was the "alien invasion" concept, where instead of us going out to other worlds, other worlds came to us. 

Movies like The Thing From Another World or Invasion of the Body Snatchers seemed to develop this alternative view that the stars and other planets were something to be afraid of. To be fair, it's not hard to see why. In my old essay Alienation of the Individual in Films About Aliens I discussed how the depictions of extraterrestrial encounters in film reflected major social developments. In this case, the aliens were often allegories for the prevailing fear of communism and the perceived inevitability of nuclear war. Many of these films subsequently involve America being attacked and the government being the ones who have to save the day.

On the flip side of things, we have the Polish/East German collaboration Der Schweigende Stern, also known as The Silent Star or First Spaceship to Venus. Much like the American science fiction films of the period this one presented a somewhat idealized vision of the Soviet Union, and in a surprisingly progressive move involves a crew of mixed nationality, race, and gender (a lot of American films of the time would usually have had the crew portrayed as mostly if not entirely white American men).

With this film, we also have a brave crew of astronauts bravely making the first trip to Venus (this was 1960, they didn't know about the carbon atmosphere or the extreme pressures or the temperatures high enough to melt lead back then), much like the cast of Destination Moon or Conquest of Space, but once they get there they do not claim the planet the same way the cast of Pal's films did. 

Instead, they find traces of intelligent life (again, the filmmakers did not have the information on Venus we do now, just try and go with it) and it becomes more a story about humanity, with the reveal that the aliens destroyed themselves in nuclear war. This then sends the astronauts back home to warn humanity in the hopes that we can avert the same fate. Like Destination Moon and Conquest of Space, the story becomes about exploring new worlds but in the end they're not for us to take.

This can be seen more in American cinema as well. Forbidden Planet begins with a large militaristic space expedition investigating a colony on the fourth planet from the star Altair which they have reason to believe is in trouble. When they arrive, only one of the original colonists, Dr. Morbius, remains, along with his daughter who was presumably born on the planet. 

We eventually find out that what happened to the colony had to do with the remains of an ancient civilization that lived there once before. We never actually see any of the aliens known as the "Krell" (the most we get is a vague hint that on average their heads were bigger than those of a human) but we know that there is something dangerous here. 

This planet is not one humanity was meant to find, as the crew discover the hard way; the colonists who tried to take this world for themselves met their end by way of a "monster from the id" unwittingly created by Morbius by way of Krell technology. In the end, the only way to defeat the monster is to destroy the entire planet and said technology along with it, thus ensuring it is lost forever.

Indeed, we don't seem to see many films that present a positive view of humanity's exploration beyond Earth. More recently we had the film Prometheus, where a search for answers to humanity's origins cost the lives of all but two of the cast and almost caused an angry alien to dump a dangerous goo all over the Earth and most likely destroy humanity. 

We also still get plenty of alien invasion films suggesting the stars are something to be feared. Prometheus provides a bit of both us going out and finding horrifying things and those things coming to us, but we also still have plenty of more modern films suggesting the stars are something to be feared. 

John Carepnter's The Thing is a good example of such a film, wherein a group of scientists stationed at an Antarctic research camp encounter a an alien that landed on the Earth roughly 100,000 years ago. We never find out precisely where it came from; just that it was from some other planet, but once it is on Earth and it is found, the Thing becomes unstoppable. One by one the men stationed at the camp are systematically assimilated and it is very well possible the Thing is still at large at the end (there is an alternate ending in some televised versions that confirms this possibility).

2001: A Space Odyssey is the closest I'm aware of to a movie returning to the themes of Pal's films. In this film we see once again see the idea of mankind journeying out to explore other worlds. There are colonies on the moon that seem to be doing really well with hints that there are aliens subtly guiding us through our evolution, but it seems to have a fairly positive view of settling on other worlds. 

It should be noted that the disaster that later occurs aboard Discovery, specifically the malfunction of the HAL 9000 computer, was entirely due to human error (as were the problems found in Destination Moon and Conquest of Space). When he arrives, Dave Bowman encounters the monolith but there is no reason given to be afraid of travelling to Jupiter or to for that matter begin settling on its moons or any of the other planets. 

However, the sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact has a slightly different story. That film involves the investigation into what happened during the events of 2001, but it also delves into the possibility of life on Europa. At the very end, Jupiter is literally transformed into a star, allowing Europa's icy surface to melt and life to develop. We get this final message at the end:

So contrary to George Pal's vision in Destination Moon, not all the worlds we see are ours for the taking. Many of them are, so long as we leave Europa alone and allow the newly-developed life to begin evolving. 

Speaking of Europa, we also have a more recent effort to explore it with the 2013 movie Europa Report.Here we also have a similar deal of men and women journeying out into space to explore one of Jupiter's moons, this time in the hopes of discovering life. When they arrive, the crew end up facing one problem after another, and they do in fact find life, but ultimately they all die in the process. Once again, this world was not meant for us to explore.

So why is this? We see so many science fiction movies about exploration and yet so few that seem to cast it in a positive light. We frequently see worlds humanity was never mean to visit, or indications that contrary to the visions of Stanely Kubrick and George Pal, the stars are not in fact something we should reach out towards, but in fact something to be feared. 

I cannot say for sure why this is the case, or why we don't see more science fiction films that provide an optimistic view of exploration and colonization of other worlds. Even George Pal hinted at the dangers of the cosmos in The War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide (both of which concern a desperate struggle to keep humanity from being wiped out by a danger originating from elsewhere). 

What I can say is that it is curious that such a tend exists. Even in the 1950's it would have been known that the universe can be a very terrifying place, and humanity is only a tiny part of a vast cosmos, most of which we can't even see (a large portion of the universe is believed to be made of an invisible substance called "dark matter"), so in that sense it is correct to assume that the universe does not belong to us and therefore that there are worlds we could benefit from exploring and others that we would do best to stay away from.

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