Thursday, 24 July 2014

A Ship, A Crew, and A Signal

Back in April, I posted an article discussing a little-recognized by extremely influential sub-genre of science fiction I called The "Space Disaster" Movie. Technically it's not exclusively science fiction considering Apollo 13 fits the formula I've established and that was based on true events, but most examples are.

The formula is simple enough but exists in so many forms. Basically, it usually goes something like this: a group of astronauts are on some sort of mission and at first everything is going fine. Then something happens that they could not have foreseen, something that puts them in danger. The characters end up being stranded in their environment, trying to survive long enough to find a way home. This basic structure applies to far too many films to count, and in my original article I list a large number of movies ranging from Destination Moon to Gravity.

However, something interesting happened recently. I was hanging out on the IMDB message boards, specifically the one dedicated to the poll. This time around I found a poll idea that would name this article, started by a user named "The Once and Future Jerk". In this poll he presented a new formula, one which I realized was essentially a sub-genre to the sub-genre I'd already discovered. This user had managed to come up with 11 different films that fit the basic formula, and I was able to find one more to add to the list before the poll went live.

So how does this new formula work? Well, it consists of those three things you hear in the title of both this article and the poll that inspired it: a ship, a crew, and a signal. A movie using this concept typically begins with a signal of some sort being received, usually from another planet. The precise nature of the signal may vary, ranging from ancient recordings left on Earth to messages from the stars. It could be alien in origin or belong to a previous group of astronauts to visit that location. Either way, the next step is more or less the same: a spaceship and a crew of astronauts is assembled and sent towards the source of the signal to investigate. In most cases, the results are a great big disaster.

Now, I'm not sure if you were thinking of a specific film, but the explanation I have just given could describe the plots of Forbidden Planet, Der Schwegende Stern (a,k.a. First Spaceship to Venus or The Silent Star), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, 2010Aliens, Event Horizon, ContactMission to Mars, all three versions of Solaris, Sunshine, and Prometheus. It is indeed curious as to how popular this formula has become.

Now, some variations exist in the details. As noted before, the nature of the signal seems to vary between different works. Der Schwegende Stern and Prometheus both opt for an approach involving ancient messages left by aliens. In the former, there is a mysterious spool unearthed that contains the voices of people from Venus (this was before we found out the planet was inhospitable for any kind of life) which leads to a crew of astronauts being sent to make contact. Along the way there is danger which presents itself when the message is decoded and revealed to be plans for an invasion that never took place. The mission then becomes one in which the crew hope to negotiate with the aliens.

Prometheus has a more roundabout approach in which a team of archaeologists find a series of cave paintings that suggest humanity was created by beings from another world. The maps they find are mistaken for an invitation for humanity to literally meet their makers when they've developed sufficient technology to reach the system depicted. Whether this is actually an invitation as originally believed is unclear, especially since we never fully learn why the Engineers wanted to destroy us. There is a theory that (in an interesting parallel to Alien) the cave paintings were actually meant as a warning.

This brings us to a more common scenario, which is the distress call: either a cry for help or a warning to stay away. In most cases, the protagonists will arrive too late. By the time they reach the source of the signal, bad things are already starting to happen at best, and at worst everybody's already dead.

 In the majority of these cases (Alien being a rare exception), the signal originated from a human group of characters involved with a previous expedition. The plot then involves the characters figuring out is happening or what already happened to those characters, presumably facing the danger themselves.

In Forbidden Planet all but two of the original Altair Expedition have been dead for some time before the heroes arrive. Gradually, the astronauts learn more about Morbius's activity on the planet, particularly his discovery of the Krell civilization and playing around with their technology. The old party was wiped out literally by a physical manifestation of Morbius's darker subconscious, and in the end it becomes clear that the technology is far too dangerous to share with the rest of humanity.

Solaris offers a partial variation. The distress signal is more a personal request for Kelvin to come to the station and figure out what's happening. When he gets there, two of the crew are dead and only two others remain (granted, at least in the 2002 version, one of them is revealed to have been accidentally murdered and replaced by a "visitor"). 

Kelvin himself gradually faces the same trouble when he is visited by a replication of his dead wife. The planet's mind is so alien nobody can be sure if it's intentions are benevolent or hostile (although the way it expanded in the end suggests it was offended by Gordon's use of the "Higg's Device"). In this case it becomes about the tension between the characters, but it all started with the signal.

That's something of a weird pattern in this formula. The signal seems to be less a call for help or a warning and more like a lure. In Solaris the whole thing gets started because Kelvin gets a personal request to go visit the station in orbiting the titular planet, only to find the man who sent that request dead when he arrives. In Forbidden Planet the heroes are sent on a rescue mission to Altair only to end up being stranded on the planet shortly after arriving and later attacked by an invincible monster. 

Finally, we move into a slightly more optimistic variant of this formula, and that is the "message from the stars" approach. This one is slightly less common, but the key distinction is that the signal is almost always of alien origin. Prometheus and Der Schwegende Stern could both be considered a combination of this and the "distress signal" approach, given both involve the characters visiting the alien planet to find the aftermath of some horrible disaster. 

Still, I do have two far better examples. Silent Running actually might have qualified had they stuck to the ideas of the original script (which supposedly involved Lowell making contact with aliens, and would have ended with them finding the dome containing the last forests after it is ejected into space). The best examples would arguably be 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact

In both films, there is a signal of some sort that sparks an expedition to its source. In 2001, it is a mysterious alien artifact known simply as "The Monolith" (we never really find out what it is) found on the Moon. It broadcasts a signal towards Jupiter once it is exposed to the sun for the first time since it was buried.

With Contact, we get something a little bit different. The plot gets going when Ellie Arroway manages to locate the first confirmed signal of extraterrestrial origin, specifically one from Vega. Within that signal are instructions to build a ship that can take one passenger to that star. Ellie may be going alone this time, but it is still a ship built in response to a signal.

Unlike the distress call scenario, the Message from the Stars becomes a pursuit of knowledge. 
While 2001: A Space Odyssey does have tragedy strike, leaving Dave Bowman as the only survivor, that had nothing to do with the signal. It was an unfortunate series of circumstances that were entirely due to human error that happened on the way, not when they arrived. 

In both cases, the film builds up to a surreal climax that raises new questions. The pursuit of knowledge only leads to greater mystery that perhaps will never be truly solved. Both Dave and Ellie make contact, but in the end, they really get a glimpse of just how vast the universe truly is. Dave is exposed to a wealth of knowledge we can scarcely begin to comprehend, and advanced to the next stage of evolution, while Ellie is left with plenty of questions and an incentive to keep observing the universe.

Ultimately, it seems there are two extremes with regards to this formula. On the one hand, we have the distress call scenario, wherein a human party sends out a signal and their rescuers are faced with disaster, and the Message From the Stars scenario, which becomes a pursuit of knowledge which ultimately leads to greater questions.

1 comment:

  1. Contact is a great and under valued film and 2001 is a classic but you are right with the typical premise. I enjoyed reading this and thought of al the genre's and there is always some path that remains the same. Gravity sucked by the way. Except for the special effects, the writing, acting and just about everything else was horrible. The last scene , from the angle they shot seemed like she was the 50 ft woman ready to attack