Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night: Claustrophobia and Human Nature in space blockbusters
The title quote for this article is taken from Dylan Thomas’ poem by the same name that is used and re-used in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic, Interstellar. It is a poem that deals with man’s composure on the brink of death, and one can see - to an extent - how Thomas’s urging that one must ‘burn and rave at close of day’ has its links to the humanity facing extinction and turning to the stars that the Nolan brothers depict. It strikes me as perhaps not so coincidental that another of Thomas’s most famous works, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’, can be found in the 2002 remake of Tarkovsky’s epic Solaris. As a genre, the “sci-fi [or] space epic” employs survival against all odds (and occasionally, all dimensions) as one of its key themes.
I now must clarify that the sci-fi films I am referring to are not the ones of assorted heroics amid innumerable aliens, but to that odd sub-genre that had its heyday in the 1970s with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Alien. This genre differentiates itself from blockbuster epics like Star Wars with its focus mainly on the psychological aspects of space travel, and what Peter Bradshaw has called “darkness, scepticism and subversion”. While still dealing with alien races, planets and the dangers inherent therein, Roger Ebert once noted the alien race, in this genre, exists “more effectively in negative space”. These are films in which prevailing danger often stems from mankind itself, or technology of mankind’s own making - think Dr. Mann in Interstellar, HAL in 2001 or NASA’s budget in the recently released The Martian.
There is a certain unease ingrained in these films, films which do not always seek to present the awe-inspiring side of space travel. But what is it about this that excites filmmakers’ imaginations so, leading them to create films that are often daringly disregardful of audience
reaction or box office ratings? One could argue it is the same reasoning behind the horror genre - that this is another way of expressing the issues of the human condition0 by supplanting them and presenting them in a new context, one that is firmly liminal in the realms of our psyche. Instead of the ‘ghost dimension’, here we have the ‘alien’ one. Of course, both grant filmmakers a huge amount of freedom with which to play with visual effects and music. This movement came to its own in the 1970s, with visionary (if stubborn) directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky. Much of what their films present the audience with is meditative. One review of 2001 noted the film posed the question; “if we conquer both space and time, then what?”. What these films do is, via long, sweeping camera shots and extended sequences of little action, is let our imaginations run wild. Stark visual power and emotionally ambiguous main characters leave quite a whole lot up to the audience to decide- and often this decision does not leave space travel in the most favourable light.
So how do we see this presented in more the more contemporary Space film? The plots of these films, from Sunshine to Interstellar, have always been criticised, but the beauty of them lies in the absurdity of the situations they present. The sheer power these moments where the film’s musical, visual and emotional effects all come together offer to the audience an effect you just wouldn’t achieve if the film were not set in a galaxy far, far away.
Perhaps the image I’m painting here of our latest Space Epics is a bit too… positive. On top of these remarkable feats of humanity depicted, along with award-winning scores and special effects, come moments of insanity, doubt, claustrophobia, and death. Just think of what happens to Interstellar’s Dr. Mann, Solaris’s Dr. Gibarian, and pretty much the whole supporting cast of Alien. Space, although the exciting last frontier, is still no laughing matter. A sense of claustrophobia, often elicited by cramped camera angles and sharp contrasts to external vistas (think balletic spaceships & the ‘Blue Danube Waltz in 2001), also features heavily in these films.
The films referenced above do not really attempt to broach the age-old question ‘are we alone in the universe?’. Instead, they seek to reinforce that we exist in an entire cosmos. This idea is surely as terrifying as it is exciting; it is all well and good for Dr Brand in Interstellar to assert that “love is the one thing we are capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space”, but the revelation in these films is the one faced by countless characters of what it truly is to die alone. The survival instinct on crack. This is really what the slow pacing, astronomical use of silence and psychological unravelling of these films offers its audience. We are given the space and time, literally, to ask of ourselves what we would do in similar circumstances. I’ll end as I began, with Thomas's call to arms at the brink of oblivion - “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”