With its $55 million opening and 93% Rotten Tomatoes score, Ridley Scott/Matt Damon’s The Martian is a commercial and critical success. However, Mars castaway Mark Watney is not the first celestial voyager to find himself alone amongst the cosmos. Movies from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Solaris to Gravity to Interstellar have presented tales of people separated from their home world across the vastness of space. In addition to those popular classics, let’s look at some lesser remembered films that celebrate isolation in the infinite void.
DESTINATION: MOON (dir. Irving Pichel, 1950)
Co-written by legendary sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, Destination: Moon (1950) earned a positive reputation for being one of the first science fiction movies to actually consider the “science” part of that equation. The filmmakers (including future Academy Award-winning producer George Pal, who would become better known for his work with the 1950s adaptations of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds) took great pains to present a trip to the moon as scientifically accurate as possible (based on the science of the time). Much like modern sci-fi epics, numerous contemporary articles were written about the effects and data used by the filmmakers to provide a legitimate look at something that probably seemed impossible at the time.
The film itself is standard B-movie fare (stock characters, fare-at-best acting, generic dramatic situations, the undeniable threat of the Soviet menace) – but that should be expected watching any movie from this period. The important thing is the science, and best I can assume, the movie presents it relatively well (at least, there are no articles from 1950’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson condemning it). Most notably, it seems to actually want to educate the audience about science and space travel. There’s an animated bit starring Woody Woodpecker in the middle of the movie explaining the physics of a rocket ship and orbital velocity that is simple enough for laymen to understand yet valuable in introducing mass audiences to the complicated concepts that would lead to 1969’s world-changing event. Sequences, such as a spacewalk to repair a broken instrument, are done slowly and deliberately to highlight the dangers and the conditions in outer space. Plus it features a fire extinguisher-cum-propulsion system like in Gravity. Sure, the effects seem dated to us 65 years later, but for back then, it’s a remarkable accomplishment.
Destination: Moon is available for digital rental from Amazon and rental from Netflix.
SILENT RUNNING (dir. Douglas Trumbull, 1972)
Released a decade after Rachel Carson’s landmark environmental book Silent Spring, Silent Running is among the first major movies to seriously deal with mankind’s impact on the environment. Although we never set foot on Earth throughout the feature, we learn that we destroyed the ecology and that the people aboard these American Airlines space freighters/biodomes are the last surviving hope for the Earth’s plant-life. Directed by Douglas Trumbull, who is best known for creating the visual effects in 2001, the film stars Nebraska‘s Bruce Dern as the astronaut Lowell. After learning that the mission is to be aborted (and all the plants destr0yed), Lowell, the biggest tree hugger of them all, kills his crewmates so that his plants may survive along with himself and his three robot friends (Huey, Dewey, and Louie) who will continue to help them survive. While the ecology message is obvious and a bit heavy handed, the film has remarkable sets and effects, as well as a legacy that belies its lack of name recognition. Among the works inspired by this movie include Wall-E (perhaps most obviously), Moon, and Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Silent Running is available for digital rental on most services, but isn’t streaming.
DARK STAR (dir. John Carpenter, 1974)
Before Dan O’Bannon joined Ridley Scott to take us aboard the Nostromo in Alien in 1979, he teamed with John Carpenter for Dark Star. Featuring a similar premise to Alien– a group of people on a deep space mission (albeit to nuke unstable planets for future colonization rather than capture an alien for nefarious means)- Dark Star plays towards the darkly comic potential of this idea rather than the horrific one. The crew is endlessly bored, machinery breaks down constantly, the dead commander is kept on ice and can be brought back for advice, and they even have an alien wreaking havoc on the ship – albeit in a more cartoony fashion than a Xenomorph. One can sense earlier influences throughout the film (including 2001 and Star Trek), but it’s the satirical elements, such as the dangers of trying to confuse an intelligent machine with philosophical paradoxes, that make it stand apart from other movies from this era and genre. Yes, it’s cheap looking; yes, the acting leaves a lot to be desired; and yes, the scientific accuracy of this movie is practically non-existent, but what else would you want in a 1970s cult film? Plus a nifty theme song.
Dark Star is available for digital rental on most services, but isn’t streaming.
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (dir. Robert Wise, 1979)
It seems ridiculous to call a Star Trek movie “lesser remembered”, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture has always been the strange outlier of the entire franchise. For starters, it lacks the bizarre obsession with Moby Dick that has followed the brand across its three film franchises. But more importantly, it’s the only Trek movie that feels more space drama than space opera. It lacks the epic space battles and over-the-top villains that have become standard in this franchise. Rather, we get a possessed bald woman who acts as proxy for a sentient Voyager II probe turned God-Like Being named V’ger. But what separates the original movie from its follow-ups is its pensive epic quality. The film’s coldness and isolation gives the entire experience an eerie quality, as though the Enterprise could just disappear into nothingness because that’s just something that happens out in space and everyone knows and accepts it. Obviously, the movie has its problems. It’s very slow, there’s a lot of Enterprise porn (though to be fair, who can blame them now that they have a budget greater than a 1960’s TV show), and it lacks the fun of future and previous outings – though the character moments are very solid, and it elevates the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy far beyond what the show was able to do. But it’s intelligent, philosophical, and beautiful looking – it’s Star Trek at its most ambitious. Plus it gave us this future piece of iconography:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is available for digital rental on most services, but isn’t streaming.
THE BLACK HOLE (dir. Gary Nelson, 1979)
Speaking of great scores, The Black Hole features one of the legendary John Barry’s most accomplished soundtracks, plus it’s one of the best live action Disney films of all time. Outside of Tron, old Disney films are overrun by moppet children with that weird red-faced, freckled look that Technicolor tends to give preadolescents. But The Black Hole was something different. Child-free and set in deep space, The Black Hole is a wonder of visual effects and music (though detrimentally lacking in scientific accuracy, according to Mr. Tyson). Despite being post-Star Wars, this is yet another introspective musing about the psychological horrors of space. It follows the crew of spaceship Palomino who approach a black hole with the hopes of discovering what happened to a lost astronaut. While the human cast is impressive (including Maximillian Schell, Robert Forster, Ernest Borgnine, and Anthony Perkins), what really stands out are the animatronic robots VINCENT and BOB, who seem as real as the best CGI creations of today (and who may even be seen as the precursor of TARS and CASE in Interstellar). Rife with some incredible production design, as well as religious symbolism and surrealistic elements that could be suited for a Ken Russell movie, it’s a pity this one isn’t yet available on Blu-Ray.
The Black Hole is available for digital rental on most services, but isn’t streaming.
These are just five of the movies that remind us how in space no one can hear you scream. Of course, these rank among better ones with ideas and effects that show us why, at one point, the exploration of space was something that we all dreamed about. But this genre doesn’t stop there, and one can probably find a whole bunch of films over the past several decades that run the gamut in quality. Besides, these can be among the cheapest movies to produce – decent “lost in space” stories have little need for a large cast or even outdoor shots. What better a set-up for an existential tale of one man against himself? Alternatively, it’s an easy way for effects wizards to show his or her ability at CGI (as well as their lesser skills at story, character and dialogue). After all, for every incredible Moon, we get the meandering Love.