Good news, frustrated dwellers of Earth: You may soon be able to get off this overcrowded, toxic craphole of a planet! Super-rich guy Dennis Tito recently announced that his Inspiration Mars non-profit initiative could potentially send two people on an inaugural manned mission to Mars as early as 2017.
Though applicants may be curious about the planet’s conditions, they should avoid seeing Ruairi Robinson’s The Last Days on Mars, which comes out this week. It’s the latest in a long line of science-fiction movies that imagine the calamities that could befall humans who escape our stratosphere. In this case, an alien bacterium transforms members of a scientific expedition into killer zombies who need no spacesuits to get around on our neighbouring orb’s surface. Aspiring astronauts should also forego Gravity. Alfonso Cuaròn’s survival tale avoids the more fantastical elements of many sci-fi adventures, but it remains a convincing demonstration of the perils of space travel, including acute nausea, malfunctioning equipment, and prolonged exposure to boring anecdotes by George Clooney.
Actually, it’s hard to find a recent film that has anything hopeful to say about the final frontier. If astronauts aren’t fatally impregnated by face-hugging aliens or gored by giant spiders, then they’re murdered by fellow travellers who’ve succumbed to the psychological stresses of interplanetary voyages and long-term isolation. Characters in films like Europa Report, Moon, Sunshine, and Event Horizon all exhibit symptoms, which The Ren & Stimpy Show helpfully termed “space madness.”
Given the gloom and pessimism that pervades these cinematic visions of our fates beyond terra firma, it’s no wonder that Tito’s announcement seems like it belongs to an earlier age. In that regard, it’s a self-conscious echo of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to land an American on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out. Though that dream didn’t die with Kennedy in Dallas 50 years ago, it sure feels like it did these days. Before Chris Hadfield tapped into the power of social media, it had been years since some of us noticed there were still people floating up there in space.
Indifference is one byproduct of NASA’s decision to channel its diminishing resources into boring, ugly space shuttles. But at what point did our dreams of space curdle into nightmares of psychosis and violence? Given that sci-fi stories are often interpreted as projections of terrestrial fears and anxieties, the change has everything to do with shifting perceptions of our planet and worries about its future.
Consequently, our doomy outlook on not-so-valiant ventures beyond our galaxy may be closely related to our penchant for dystopic fantasies of home. In an interview with The Grid earlier this year, The World’s End director Edgar Wright floated a theory about the abundance of films depicting planetary apocalypses. He links the trend to the shock he felt as a kid seeing the Challenger disaster in 1986. Until then, Wright always thought he’d become an astronaut when he grew up. “I wanted to explore deep space like they did in Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey—I thought that was all going to be a reality and that by 2010, we’d be living on the moon or Mars. Or else I’d watch Close Encounters or E.T. and think that someone would come down to us and everything would change.”
With the explosion of the Challenger came the end of the wide-eyed optimism that the space race had fostered for so long. Upon realizing that “the chance of going to other planets is beyond slim”—according to Wright, if not to Tito—genre writers began to look inward rather than outward. Thus did their prevailing obsession become the destruction of our planet, an event that filmmakers have spared no expense in visualizing and fetishizing ad infinitum.
So why should we expect spacebound humankind to be any wiser than we are down here? If we manage to avoid getting eviscerated by some headcase in zero-G, the best we can expect of our lives out there is to become the slow-witted gluttons aboard the cruise ship in WALL*E, or the faceless one-per-centers who reside far above the madding crowd in Elysium’s orbital gated community. It’s hardly worth bothering to buy a space suit to get in on Inspiration Mars if interplanetary travel looks worse than the regular kind.
Things you might face in space
Your clone. (Moon)
Hallucinations of your dead wife. (Solaris)
Explosive indigestion. (Alien)
Sam Neill and his portal to hell. (Event Horizon)
A bug that sucks the brain out of your skull. (Starship Troopers)