Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Society and Science Fiction

In terms of story, Gravity and Conquest of Space are two very different ideas. Gravity is more about the individual and self-reliance while Conquest of Space becomes more about humanity as a whole. Conquest of Space therefore makes use of an ensemble cast while Gravity focuses almost exclusively on one individual (George Clooney's brief role the only exception). Conquest of Space involves a mission to Mars, while Gravity remains closer to Earth. In many ways, both films are products of very different eras, with different social standards and views on space travel, something especially evident in how they address the subject of gender.

Conquest of Space, as I have discussed before, utilizes an all-male cast. Producer George Pal also made a similar choice in his earlier science fiction film Destination Moon (which, interestingly, corresponds to the fact that even today we still have yet to put a woman on the moon). The film constantly uses the word "man" in place of humanity.  The trailer proudly boasted that the viewer would live "a strange topsy-turvy life of men who live as no other men have lived before" and the opening narration describes how "men" have built the wheel. When we get to see inside the Wheel, it quickly becomes clear that there are no women aboard. There are only men (though there does seem to be racial equality among those men).

The only women seen in the film are back on Earth, wives, girlfriends, and relatives of the astronauts sending them goodbye messages like the old stories of soldiers' wives saying goodbye before they were sent off to battle or sailors' wives saying goodbye before the start of a long voyage. Basically, female astronauts don't seem to exist in this world, and it is very likely that the space program has restrictions against women serving as anything other than nurses and secretaries (if even that, considering none appear in those roles on the Wheel). That is not to say the film was intentionally sexist. In fact, technically in 1955 there were no female astronauts, at least none of American birth who actually went into orbit. It would not be until almost ten years later that a female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, would be launched into orbit, and the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, did not happen until 28 years after the release of Conquest of Space. It is therefore likely that the idea of female astronauts simply never occurred to the filmmakers.

This detail is somewhat ironic today, as there is a small amount of evidence which actually suggests that, at least on average, women are often better adapted physically and mentally to living in space than men, but there was a reason the filmmakers made these choices. In 1955, the space program was still under military control and in those days it had a very specific list of where women were accepted, which was greatly outnumbered by the positions that were willing to take men. Early experiments in space travel were overseen by the army and the air force, and most early astronauts had experience serving as one of those two groups. For this reason, the space program is still shown as being run by the military, and thus all-male as it is not likely that George Pal anticipated the gender integration that would occur in the military decades later.

This was also a time when women were expected to cook, clean, and make babies, thus the idea of female astronauts may have seemed unlikely for the era. As a result, the space program is seen as militaristic and being an astronaut is treated as "men's work". The first mission to Mars is treated like a naval expedition to explore a new world, a group of brave men going on a daring mission to find new resources for humanity. The few women that do appear stay behind and wait for the return of their men, much like the wives of sailors in the olden days. Though this line of thinking may seem backwards today, it would have made perfect sense to filmmakers of the era, who lacked the foresight to recognize future social developments.

Gravity, released 58 years later, has precisely the opposite treatment of gender due to being released under very different social circumstances. In 1955, feminism was making progress, but still was seen as little more than a passing fad by many men of the era. By 2013, it was more widely recognized by people of both genders, and audiences were ready to accept a female astronaut taking on the central role in a science fiction film. Throughout the film the heroine, Ryan Stone, is the only character given any real focus. The only other character whose face is even seen (at least, before his death) is her partner Matt Kowalski. In fact, the movie literally begins with Ryan being cut off from just about everyone. Fifteen minutes in, three of the five astronauts are killed and contact with mission control is lost. The only other person Ryan can turn to is Matt, who is lost soon after.

Ryan stone is therefore forced to rely on herself for the majority of Gravity's narrative. Matt's only role is to help put her on the right track. When Matt "returns" late in the film, he serves a similar function, helping Ryan to regain her confidence. However, what distinguished Matt in this later scene from his earlier role is that his appearance here is nothing more than a dream. There is no way Matt could have caught up with the Soyuz after being left in orbit, and by this point in the film he was likely either already dead or slowly dying of asphyxiation. Matt is instead merely a construct of Ryan's frightened mind, or more accurately her survival instincts.

The conversation they engage in is actually a mental conflict occurring in Ryan's own head between two different sides of her personality. Ryan herself plays the suicidal part of her character, since in a moment of despair she has proven herself ready to accept death by asphyxiation, while Matt represents that small part of her that still wants to survive. The conversation between Matt and Ryan is therefore a symbol of her thought processes as she falls asleep in the Soyuz. The solution that she finds to her problem (using the launching gear to propel the Soyuz toward the Chinese space station), was all her idea, continuing the theme of self-reliance.

The scope of the movie's themes shift. It no longer becomes about the survival of humanity or even humanity in general, just about her own struggle to survive. She has no simple solution or procedure for dealing with the situation as the men seen in Conquest of Space did. Ryan has very little experience as an astronaut to begin with, with this mission being explicitly identified as her first, and this in turn contrasts the militaristic aspect of the space program depicted in Conquest of Space. In that film, the space program is depicted as an organized branch of the military, with spaceships and space stations being run like navy crews. Gravity was affected by one development in space travel that went completely unnoticed by the filmmakers of Conquest of Space.

In 1955, the assumption that the military would still be running the space program in the future would have made sense. However, George Pal and Byron Haskin failed to anticipate the biggest flaw in that system, and the reason why the army is no longer in charge of space exploration. The American army and the American Air Force were both involved in early rocketry experiments, but they became very competitive about it. Both sides were trying to best each other, and neither wanted to share their results. They were wasting money and resources to the point where it started to cause trouble for the government. The solution was therefore to no longer allow the American Armed Forces access to rocketry. Instead, a civilian organization was assembled to take charge of space exploration, this being the origins of NASA, which is still in operation today.

Gravity therefore eliminates the militaristic qualities of the space program. None of the characters are explicitly identified to have any military background. Ryan Stone herself is even established to be a doctor, precisely the opposite of what soldiers are expected to do. In Conquest of Space, the men are established as a unit, or as a team, with each one having something valuable to contribute to the mission. There is a certain unifying quality among them. When something goes wrong, such as their commanding officer's breakdown, everyone has to stick together to continue the mission. For most of Gravity, Ryan Stone has nobody to turn to. She has to rely purely on herself to survive and return home.

The one thing both films have in common is that they aimed to create a realistic vision of outer space. Conquest of Space had to work with extreme limitations compared to Gravity. The former was made in the early days of space travel, long before even the Apollo Missions. Most of the information that was available would have been theoretical, extrapolations based on what could be understood from Earth. By the time Gravity was made, NASA had been functioning for decades: they had successfully put men on the moon, launched probes to other worlds and, through satellite technology like the Hubble, developed the beginnings of a map of the universe.

The models used in Conquest of Space are still very impressive today, but in other areas its limited information shows, particularly in the matte paintings used to depict Earth, and the scenes depicting Mars. When Conquest of Space came out in 1955, there were no clear images of the Earth as seen from space. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, made a year before the first moon landing, had to take an educated guess on what the Earth looked like. The filmmakers were fortunate to come as close as they did. Meanwhile, the shots of Earth depicted in Gravity could pass for actual photographs taken from orbit, at least by today's standards (the effects in Conquest of Space were cutting edge for its day, it is not inconceivable that decades from now Gravity's special effects might look a little dated to a future audience).

The scope of both films naturally shifts with regards to their respective social climates. Conquest of Space attempts to present a grand narrative of humanity's future. It envisions space travel as the next step forward. The opening narration describes space travel as "the last and greatest adventure of mankind", implying that something amazing is in store. The story centers on a mission to Mars but the film suggests that humanity will go on to explore other worlds in "the vast universe itself". Gravity has a more mundane look at space travel, with a group of civilians who have been living in space for some time but show little enthusiasm for their job. Matt is more interested in breaking a spacewalk record than he is about being in space. Ryan seems more interested in her immediate task of installing a new piece of equipment onto the Hubble Space Telescope than she is in the possible new discoveries it might allow.

Space seems to have lost the excitement that was portrayed in Conquest of Space, and instead living in space has become dull and routine. In the case of Gravity, the crew are confined to Earth's orbit. They have no chance of even visiting the moon, let alone other planets. All they are doing is venturing into orbit to install some equipment into a satellite. When Conquest of Space was produced, it was still in the early days of the space program. Sputnik would not be launched for another two years. Nobody knew for sure where the space program would go, but many science fiction stories envisioned an exciting future of space travel in the near future. It therefore came as a surprise to everyone when that vision did not come true after the moon landings.

Today, "space travel" is largely confined to Earth's orbit in the form of space stations, though probes have been launched to other worlds (and outside the Solar System, in the cases of Voyager 1 and 2) and orbital sattelites such as the Hubble Space Telescope have proven crucial to developing a modern understanding of the universe. This is reflected in Gravity, in which the Explorer's crew is merely a group of civilians doing their job. At best space is dull, and at worst it is a living nightmare. This element is not entirely absent from Conquest of Space, where some of the crew talk about missing their families back home, but they simultaneously recognize the significance of their mission. Gravity refrains from addressing any potential significance of the protagonist's mission. If anything it is nothing more than a routine job, probably not much different from anything that many other astronauts before Ryan have done.

Looking at these two films, it becomes clear that science fiction is a genre that has evolved drastically over the years. Conquest of Space may have been intended as a look into the future, but it also works the other way, as a window into the past. It shows the universe as it was understood in the 1950's, and what men of the time thought space travel might one day look like in a way that seemed to make the most sense to them. By comparing it to a contemporary science fiction film like Gravity, the social changes start to become clear. In both films there was a similar aim of realistically envisioning outer space, but ultimately they are both simultaneously reflections of the eras in which they were made.

This Post was written for the Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by This Island RodFerdy on Films, and Wonders in the Dark


  1. So true about how what was once meant to be purely futuristic also serves as a window into the past. I have not seen Conquest of Space, yet. You've certainly put it on my radar. Again. Thanks for another excellent write-up.

    1. Well, that one does have a weird tendency to keep popping up on my blog. I personally enjoyed Conquest of Space, and I'd say it's worth checking out if you get the chance though it does require some acceptance of 1950's social standards. It's sort of like an early attempt to create the sort of sci-fi epic about humanity's first steps away from Earth that would later be made famous by movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar.

    2. Oh, I've seen enough movies and TV from the 50s so the social norms of that society gone by are not an issue.

  2. That was a nice compare and contrast of two views of space exploration separated by many years and many events.

    1. That is a bit of an understatement, but yes. It's funny how these kinds of movies can change over time.

  3. Thank you for this in-depth comparison! The blogathon so far has been great for learning about some older sci-fi movies. :)

    1. You're welcome. We certainly covered a lot of ground in this blogathon, and this area was definitely something a lot of people would not have covered. I probably wouldn't have thought of it myself had Rod not suggested it a week before the blogathon started.