It came, it saw, it…got middling reviews. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus left audiences with a Veronica Cartwright-esque reaction to its unanswered questions and stilted dialogue when it hit screens last week, and if reviews from the US (where it opened this week) are anything to go by, the UK reaction will be reflected across the pond. Many of the criticisms are justified, but for all its problems Prometheus gets one thing right. Smart, sophisticated and far more thought-provoking than any franchise effort should be, it’s a wonderful example of that little-seen beast: a film set in space that genuinely has something to say about what lies out there in the wild blue yonder.
The lack of such films is as surprising as it is disappointing. Genre movies are more popular now than they’ve ever been before and most of this summer’s major blockbusters have sci-fi/fantasy elements woven into their DNA. If hulking green monsters and brooding dark knights aren’t your thing, the last few years have also produced more cerebral SF courtesy of Another Earth, Melancholia and Moon. Problem is, while these films concern space, only one is actually set in space (Moon) and that uses the cosmos as a backdrop for the drama rather than the driving force of it. The few to really venture where no man has gone before include Apollo documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and, going way back to the 90s, Contact, Event Horizon and the Mars duo of Mission to Mars and Red Planet.
So why the lack? Well, let’s deal with the Death Star in the room first. Yep, Star Wars, that familiar scapegoat for modern cinema’s woes, has to line up to be the punching bag once again. I’m not going to argue that George Lucas infantalised cinema or subject him to any of the usual tired old critical cliches, but it can’t be denied that Star Wars shifted the boundaries of cinema’s depiction of space. What was once just a gigantic black void tailor-made for philosophical explorations of the dark heart of man (2001, Silent Running) became a playground for X-Wing dogfights and lightsaber battles. Exploration became uncool and, most importantly, unprofitable.
So that’s that then. George Lucas, you fiend, you’ve ruined it for everyone! Again! Well, not quite. There’s far more to cinema’s current disinterest in serious space films than just Jar Jar Binks – it’s also a sociological thing. The massive leaps in technology we’ve taken over the last decade or two have shifted our scientific focus. The space programme has taken a back seat, and now the focus is on the internet, mobile phones and tablet devices. All the technological power we could ever want sits at the tip of our fingers – literally. Why would we want to bother concerning ourselves with the cosmos when we can play Angry Birds?
Of course, there’s still a fascination with space, as seen in the response to the recent pictures of the Transit of Venus across the sun, but it’s nothing more than surface deep. We don’t want or need to know what the Transit of Venus is, just that’s it’s happening and it looks incredibly beautiful. Nothing wrong with that, of course, it was indeed very, very pretty, and I marveled at the pictures along with everyone else. But the interest in the spectacle rather than the speculation of space has rubbed off on cinema and now we seem as far away from another 2001 as 2001 did back in 1968.
The good news is that despite Prometheus‘s mixed reception, it is going down well at the box office. Sunshine did the same back in 2007 and Contact was similarly popular ten years prior. There is a hunger for space movies then, but they need what those three films and the likes of 2001 had: a director with genuine vision. Scott, Boyle, Zemeckis and Kubrick all turned style into substance by making opulent pictures that captured the wonder and terror of space visually. Sunshine, to expand on one example, evokes the power of the sun so perfectly it almost feels like the celluloid itself will wither and burn.
Film-makers need to embrace similar techniques because there’s so much potential in space films that remains untapped. Done well, they can become both great spectacle and speculation, appealing to those who just want to look up in wonder and those who want to ask questions. As we become ever-more technically competent and conquer the mysteries of the world, looking to space reminds us of our miniscule size and lack of knowledge in the grand scheme of things, and that’s something we need to keep sight of. Hopefully with Prometheus‘s box office success, Hollywood will realise that there is life (or at least money) on other planets and help us do that.