So, a few days ago, I went to the cinema with my Dad, to see Moon. First up, don’t get the impression that my Dad is the only person I go to the cinema with. He’s just the only person who is willing to see films with me that are either a) science fiction or b) very bad, since most other people in my life are either operating in different genres or suffer from taste.
Second, Moon is really very good! I had hopes, since it seemed to be one of the very few films set in space which seemed to involve both a stark space station and a complete lack of drooling aliens. Not that I have any problem with drooling aliens; some of the best bits of cinema I’ve ever seen involve ridiculous quantities of slime. But Moon was something entirely different and arguably better, ticking all the boxes from disturbing through to quaintly comic with a hefty dose of countdown tension, jubilation and sadness. A brilliant example of what can be done with one carefully and elegantly lived-in set, one extremely good actor and some amazingly good editing; recommended to all who like their science fiction high on the exploration-of-humanity and low on drooling aliens factor!
While we’re talking about the moon…
… I should probably mention that Apollo 13is on my shelf as one of my all-time favourite films. Yes, there is quite a lot of America-praising going on in there, and it’s remarkable that one small space ship managed to fit three astronauts, a camerman and a small brass band which could come in movingly over particularly patriotic moments, but even if the story wasn’t gripping in itself, it’s a fantastic bit of craft. Apollo 13 manages to pull off the ultimate narrative trick – it tells a story, the end of which we all know, and yet manages to keep you tense and gripped throughout. It is a very difficult thing to describe without actually having the film in front of you, but it contains one of my all-time favourite pieces of narrative succinctness. First you need the situation – the Apollo space module has been half ripped to shreds by an explosion in the oxygen tanks, it’s lost air, it’s lost power, it’s lost heat, the astronauts have been thrown onto the wrong trajectory, been poisoned by CO2, suffered disease, hypothermia and haven’t slept for days, and finally, the earth is in sight. They de-couple from the module that suffered the original fault and for the first time see the extent of the damage. They radio Earth, reporting on what they see, damage all along the side, right up to the heat shield. It’s spoken calmly and carefully, professionals assessing the damage.
On earth, in the control room, character A receives the news, walks up to character B while all around them the room chatters with the planning process of how to bring the ship safely to land, and says flatly, ‘The heat shield.’
Immediately on every sofa and cinema seat where this is playing, the audience sits back, banging its head with its hands and goes, ‘no, seriously? You’re shitting me. They’ve gone through all this and now there’s something wrong with the heat shield?’
Three little words – the heat shield – and the brief burst of hope that the audience had at seeing earth out of the space module window is once again shunted back beneath a shudder of ‘oh shit really?’ and somehow, though we know, we all know, that they make it home, Apollo 13 manages to pull off the trick of making us cringe inside.
Thinking of mis-named ships…
… if you thought Apollo 13 was perhaps a bad name for a space mission, what genius decided in the film Sunshine to name the ship that has to fly to the sun and save all mankind, Icarus II? It’s bad enough that they’ve called it Icarus – a boy who flew too close to the sun and whoops we all know what happened – but surely calling it the Icarus II after Icarus I has so clearly and disastrously failed, seems to be tempting fate. Almost needless to say, Sunshine is also right up on my list of space-set films in which the sets are small and well-loved, the acting is excellent and you don’t need the aliens to dribble to feel your heart race and your stomach clench.
With all the talk these last few weeks of the 40th anniversary of man landing on the moon, I guess I should declare my bias now and get it out of the way. I am entirely in favour of mankind exploring space, and landing on the moon was the first necessary step to achieving this. I fully accept that the Americans landing on the moon was largely the product of the Cold War madness which kept the last 50 years so exciting and the spy thriller genre so brisk on the bookshelves, but science, and the exploration of space, is one of the very few areas where all mankind stands united. Not united in that we all wish to walk on Mars, or visit the moons of Jupiter; but united in the sense that no one nation can lay claim to the products of discovery, of mathematical innovation or scientific wonder. When man walked on the moon, and if man ever walks on Mars, it is as man that it is done, not as an American, or a European, or a Chinese or Russian cosmonaut laying claim for a nation. Certainly that was the motivation that sent the Americans to the moon in the 1960s, and planted an American flag on its soil, but the whole world watched, and the whole world thought that this is mankindwalking on another world, regardless of race, creed and colour. Sure, governments may scheme, derive political kudos and see the possible economic gains from being able to say, ‘here is Mars and I claim it for the people of Luxembourg’, but by very definition, the things that are out of this world, are not, and should not, be confined by the squabblings, the mistakes and the machinations that have defined so much of mankind’s past on this world.