Galaxy Quests: The Unlikely Trilogy of Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian

The moniker “space: the final frontier” made its iconic debut in the opening moments of the original Star Trek television series, signaling for an eager populace a future where intergalactic travel was right around the corner. But nearly fifty years later, the infinite void of outer space has continued to befuddle our earthbound engineers and, by extension, our filmmakers. Ever since A Trip to the Moon in 1902, voyages to the stars has served as a reliable source of wonder for the vast medium that is science fiction filmmaking. For every daring cinematic monolith like 2001: A Space Odyssey[1], there’s a dozen more Plan 9 from Outer Space[s][2]: forgettable schlock that represses a dramatically rich genre to stay tragically earthbound. This variance in quality but demand for product forces filmmakers to struggle time after time to make what remains in real-life unconquerable territory worthwhile yarns in otherworldly settings.

However, any observer of contemporary movies is well aware of the prominence that comic book-inspired films have in cineplexes. This supplanting of outer space epics to brand-recognizable I.P.s would seem to signal the public’s malaise towards big budget’s excursions into alien atmospheres. Moviegoers’ interests in interwoven, elaborate mythologies have in effect replaced the more simplistic yet eternal questions raised by our very own universe. However, a curious trio of films in the last few years has popped up in the wake of innumerable spandex spectacles: Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), and The Martian (2015). The similarities and differences that exist between these three works show three directors wrestling with an industry that prizes countless mutants and super soldiers over the intricate spectrum that is human emotion and its placer in a greater cosmos.

Sandra-Bullock1

All three films are anchored by memorable central performances from some of the era’s best A-list talents. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock portrays Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer tasked with servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. After a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite sends an ocean of debris flying towards her crew, Stone must find her way back to Earth, which sits patiently waiting at the edge of the frame in nearly every shot of the movie. While Gravity’s groundbreaking special effects left everyone astounded, they only work because of the dread and terror Bullock leads with. For all of Avatar’s brilliant pyrotechnics, the overall lack of humanity[3] make James Cameron’s film an outstanding playset whose action figures inspire little to no sparks of imagination. Here, Bullock’s defiance of survival and purpose go well beyond director Alfonso Cuaron’s choice to lead his science fiction extravaganza with a feminine presence.[4] Her relatively quiet performance allows the audience to put themselves in her space boots, making her ultimate liberation from the cold darkness of space all the richer.

In contrast, Interstellar succeeds in part thanks to Matthew McConaughey’s almost mythic aura of heroism. The film follows Cooper, a former NASA test pilot recruited to lead an expedition through a mysterious wormhole in an effort to find a new home for humanity in the face of imminent extinction. By chance, Interstellar was released in the peak year of “The McConaissance”: he had won a Best Actor performance earlier that year for his role in Dallas Buyer’s Club and was hot off receiving universal praise for his role in the first season of True Detective. Who better to steer the future of humanity than our very own twenty first century cowboy? Some of his heroics in the film would play off as foolhardy or reckless if his overpowering will to accomplish them came up short. Furthermore, the poignant connection to his daughter turned out to be breaking new ground for Christopher Nolan, a director often cited as an emotionally cool master technician.[5] This is not the type of performance the Academy rewards come February but no other actor could have elevated an already pronounced dramatic situation to the heights McConaughey did.

Where McConaughey’s intensity had the chance to make him almost foreign, Matt Damon in The Martian relates to its viewers with almost unprecedented accessibility. Ridley Scott’s latest tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut facing the impossible task of surviving on Mars long enough for NASA to travel back to rescue him. The Martian is another entry into the odd line of films assigned with rescuing one of our most beloved movie stars, with Saving Private Ryan and Interstellar[6] being among the most notable.[7] But it’s with this film that Damon is elevated to the lead role. Despite being a NASA botanist, Damon’s Watney is as relatable as a next door neighbor offering to help you fix a faulty sprinkler. He spares no expense at pointing out the absurdity of his mission and the overwhelming likelihood of failure. But in the end, Watney sees his life-or-death situation as little more than the world’s (or in this case Mars’s) most elaborate math problem. Scott, Damon, and screenwriter Drew Goddard correctly assume that Damon’s personality goes a long way into making both Watney’s diegetic and real world audiences unusually invested in one man finding his way back home.

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But most movies are only as good as their villains; it is in this instance too that this trio of event space films prove themselves to be exemplary examples of blockbuster filmmaking. In all three of these films, the most immediate source of doom is time itself. This approach seems like a spot-on choice in an age where the threats and timetables of climate change seem difficult to concretely grasp. Gravity stays committed to this approach, with the natural forces of Earth’s outer atmosphere uncalculatingly tearing away at our heroine physically and psychologically. The film’s final moments of her safely crashing back to Earth in the midst of thick, green vegetation serve as a brief reward for a hard fought return to a world whose pleasures Stone and the audience may have been apt to forget.

The latter two films have similar approaches but couple the unconquerable hand of time with tangible, human antagonists. Interstellar adds the cabin fever induced Dr. Mann (Matt Damon[8]) into the film’s third act, a somewhat expendable inclusion to a movie that proved unconventional in the production of so much of its drama. Even so, Mann’s presence still produces the docking sequence, one of the most extraordinary action set pieces in decades. The closest The Martian comes to a human adversary is NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels). But Sanders’s cautious, and at times slow, approach to bringing Watney home is hardly villainous, as the bureaucrat is trying to juggle an adventurous rescue mission in an agency where every expense must be answered for thoroughly. Though Interstellar and The Martian have trouble fully following the challenging precedent set by Gravity, all three feature a narrative daring that simplistic comic book villainy can hardly compete with.

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As expected, all three films feature impeccable special effects work that find ways to distinguish themselves from the plastic tableaus that frequently haunt the backgrounds of most modern day spectacles. Gravity was noteworthy for its ability to grant practicality to its almost exclusively computer generated environments. Cuaron is a director known for long takes that move audiences effortlessly around spaces and Gravity is no exception: the opening shot of the film alone takes place over fifteen minutes and sets the bar for a new brand of cinematography that virtually follows its human characters in an entirely digital space.[9] Its victory at the Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects was the biggest lock in that category since Avatar’s win nearly five years prior.

Nolan’s film, on the other hand, made as extensive use as possible of practical sets and locations. The harsh conditions of Interstellar’s two planets were captured in Iceland, as digital tinkering made the stark landscape even more brutal. The exteriors of the spacecrafts were achieved using “bigatures”: massive miniatures that fans of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be accustomed to seeing. I can recall the Tesseract scene awing me beyond words upon first watch, with subsequent viewings leaving me fascinated by the design of the dimensional structure.[10] Even the film’s use of CGI was as complex and developed as any Nolan devotee would trust it to be. Using the theoretical expertise of physicist Kip Thorne, the film’s black hole sequences proved to be the most accurate depictions as of yet of the mysterious heavenly bodies.[11]

Likewise, The Martian finds every opportunity to make a foreign terrain feel like a traversable possibility. There were moments that I had to pinch myself as a reminder that Twentieth Century Fox hardly had the capabilities to shoot on Mars itself. As it turns out, the production shot many of its exterior scenes in Jordan, a desert locale that bears resemblance to Martian topography. Moving Picture Company (or MPC) was tasked with tweaking the picture’s backgrounds to be even closer to the planet in question. MPC coordinated with NASA to match Mars’s tones of color, from the tint of the sky to the deep oranges of its topsoil. The Martian was no exception when it came to struggling with an elementary effects problem that challenged the previous two films: visor reflections. The ever changing light conditions forced the effects team to at points replace Damon’s real visor with a digital one, with every transition between the two needing to come off as unobtrusive as possible.[12]

Apart from all the aforementioned similarities between Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian, perhaps one of the most superficial ones is among the most telling: their release dates. The months of October (Gravity and The Martian) and November (Interstellar) are packed with hefty films vying for their chance to join the winner’s circle come awards season. In an age where superheroes rule the box office, it would seem inevitable that even heavier, prestige pictures would feature a bevy of visual effects and blockbuster expectations. However, these three films are exceptions and not the rule. They are neither dumbed-downed fluff comfortable to rely on banal dramatic shorthand nor pretentious enough to deny the captivating thrills that space epics are capable of offering. Additionally, all three are idiosyncratic visions from filmmakers whose artistic statements just happen to occasionally align with broader tastes. Cuaron, a director whose previous film was the terrifyingly perceptive Children of Men (2006), abandons his weighty politics for pure visual poetry in Gravity, a work that’s magical visuals earned him an Oscar for Best Director. Interstellar extended Nolan’s penchant for marrying real-world problems with big budget aesthetics while adding an emotional through line previously underutilized in his previous movies. And Scott, the old pro, added yet another example to his filmography of a mere mortal achieving mythic status in a way that only movies can do in The Martian. It’s hard not to see this chance coincidence of releases as a concerted validation that space films still have a lot to offer to viewers who are willing to extend their tastes beyond brand recognition and well-worn clichés.

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[1] Sorry.

[2] Even though we all know there’s really only one Plan 9.

[3] Remember, we’re talking about Sam Worthington here.

[4] In fact, Bullock’s screen time ranks as the highest among 2013’s Lead Actress nominees: 73 minutes (Gravity’s runtime-91 minutes) compared to the average of 57 minutes. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/movies/awardsseason/cinemetrics-extracts-statistical-data-from-movies.html.

[5] One could argue he tried to broach this same ground in Inception but McConaughey simply gives a better performance than the usually terrific Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe this is because Interstellar actually invests considerable time in developing their relationship (showing rather than telling) but it’s true nonetheless.

[6] Remember that one!

[7] It’s hard not to find this phenomenon slightly troubling, as this combination of films quite obviously reflects Hollywood’s insistence to save and nurture white manhood, a status quo the industry has made no qualms about maintaining. But perhaps this is a topic for another time.

[8] Boy, this guy just won’t go away!

[9] Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki developed a contraption known as “the Light Box”: essentially a cube of light that moves its actors (attached via rig) in a simulated fashion that will most accurately allow the army of technicians to best synch the effects with the scant practical elements of the film (which in this case are the actors themselves). http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/01/03/how_they_made_gravity_behind_the_scenes_video_shows_the_pioneering_light.html/

[10] http://blogs.indiewire.com/thompsononhollywood/inside-the-making-of-the-spectacular-tesseract-in-interstellar-20141210.

[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfGfZwQ_qaY.

[12] http://io9.com/the-best-effects-in-the-martian-are-the-ones-you-dont-s-1734941505.

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