The Final Frontier
One of my earliest memories of going to a movie theatre — perhaps even my very earliest, those formative years tend to blend together the older you get — was to see Apollo 13. I couldn’t tell you whether this was during the film’s theatrical run in the summer of 1995 or an encore run the year after, but I remember the popcorn, and I remember the ticket-taker, and I remember sitting in the theatre (maybe even in one of those booster seats, just to make sure I could see over the seat in front of me), excitedly watching the movie with my dad. But what I remember most of all was the feeling the movie inspired: it made me want to be an astronaut.
It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that 25 years later I am not, in fact, an astronaut — I’m a lawyer, which in terms of professional training is (if my math skills and physical fitness are any indication) probably about as far removed from NASA as you can get. But as a rabid moviegoer, I have the next best thing: the ability to vicariously experience space exploration as imagined by some of cinema’s most talented auteurs. It’s a genre I can never get enough of — every time I hear that a respected director’s next project will involve some sort of cosmic journey, that unreleased film immediately hurdles towards the top of my most-anticipated list. Though many of these projects have come and gone over the course of the past decade, there’s one in particular that stands out, both in terms of how eagerly awaited it and how much it has come to mean to me over the years.
But the funny thing about my relationship to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is that, when I first saw it in the fall of 2014, I left the theatre feeling pretty apathetic. It was a visual marvel, to be sure, but the naked emotionality on display in the final third left me a bit bewildered. This was perhaps a matter of expectations — I can’t say that, based on his previous films, I expected Nolan to push so far in that direction. Whatever the case may be, for the next few years it was one of the director’s films that felt solidly second tier for me, an example of reach exceeding grasp. But then, on a whim, I decided to revisit Interstellar and — wouldn’t you know — I was utterly blown away. Every part of it suddenly worked, especially the theme of love across time and space that I’d so easily brushed aside. I still don’t really understand what changed between my first viewing and my second, but I’ve seen the film countless times since then and have come to regard it as one of the most important artistic expressions I’ve ever experienced.
However: even as Interstellar epitomizes the power that films about space can have — the inspiration they can provide, the fires they can ignite — it also leaves me conflicted about humanity’s future as explorers of the vast unknown. Early in the film, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper ruminates:
"We used to look up in the sky and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt."
It’s a sentiment that, in context, leads to greatness: Cooper does indeed look once more to the sky and in the process strives to save all of humanity from certain destruction — our fascination with the unknown, our capacity for ingenuity, and our belief in the power of human connection ultimately makes for a better tomorrow. But taken literally, in the wake of America’s history with the space program (both recent and not-so-recent), that quote gives me pause: is it a line of thinking that portends an idyllic future, or does it instead signal our willingness to ignore the realities of the world we live in?
As I sit here writing, the United States teeters on the precipice. Over the course of the past two months, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer galvanized protesters across the nation who, after centuries of violence and oppression perpetrated by the state on its citizens of color, have taken to the streets in the middle of a global pandemic, risking life and limb, and the President of the United States has denounced his own citizens for peacefully protesting, calling them thugs and threatening to unleash the lethal expertise of the American military on the very people that fighting force is sworn to defend. The United States has seen a dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases and an inane culture war has broken out across partisan lines regarding whether or not to use the one thing — simple face masks — that has been shown to make some difference in slowing the spread of the virus. On any given day, the country appears to be on the verge of tipping over the edge into eventual, total collapse.
Five days after George Floyd’s death — again, in the midst of a seemingly unstoppable pandemic — a partnership between private company SpaceX and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration resulted in history’s first crewed commercial spaceflight, the first liftoff from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program almost a decade ago. The launch is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which awarded private companies like SpaceX over $8.2 billion in contracts. No matter how much the idea of space exploration excites you, it’s hard to square this concurrence of events. I don’t mean to denigrate those who work in the space program — far from it. But when states have to fight tooth and nail to access the bare minimum of federal financial support for health, education, and social welfare programs, spending billions of dollars on commercial space flight initiatives (especially when those dollars are going to companies and executives who have a history of questionable practices) is a tough pill to swallow.
This of course is not a new issue. Apollo 7, the first crewed Apollo mission, launched in 1968 — the same year that saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (and later Senator Robert Kennedy), an act which resulted in widespread riots across the country as protesters decried the senseless violence directed at Black Americans, a rot at the very core of our nation’s identity that has yet to be excised. A year later, Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon: an impressive achievement of science and resolve to be sure, but historical context makes that “one giant leap for mankind” feel more like an act of Cold War propaganda than an event worth celebrating, given the wealth of systemic problems back home — a hypocrisy searingly put into words by Gil Scott-Heron in a 1970 piece (which should be familiar to anyone who saw Neil Armstrong biopic First Man) bluntly titled “Whitey On the Moon.”
It’s not hard to see why the federal government is excited to fund and tout the space program, especially during times of civil unrest. Call it the irony of the unknown: working to solve the hidden mysteries of space is a lot easier than rolling up your sleeves and fixing the inequities that you know have festered in your own backyard; inventing a new and improved rocket-powered spacecraft is less challenging than dismantling an entrenched system of oppression (even if you wanted to, a claim that can’t reasonably be made about administrations like Donald Trump’s and Richard Nixon’s, to name the most obviously relevant examples). And look, don’t get me wrong: I still get a thrill whenever I imagine astronauts hurtling through space, into the void beyond our world, boldly going where no one has gone before. But we have to consider the cost. In an ideal world, we can have it all — a nation that upholds equality and justice and pioneers the exploration of the great beyond. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Maybe one day we will, but reaching that point will require us to allocate our resources towards the areas most in need of support.
If we accept the above premise and make a concerted effort to refocus our nation’s resources and priorities, what does that mean for some of our traditional art forms — specifically, what does it mean for the next Interstellar? I suppose it’s reasonable to wonder whether films about space exploration have run their course, and whether our art should more strictly reflect our values. But that perspective is flawed in that it presumes a film’s worth is tied more to what it depicts than what that depiction represents. Movies have the power to be both aspirational and inspirational, not only literally but symbolically. Films about space exploration are, for the most part, not advocating that we go to space — they’re showing us humanity’s potential and encouraging us to apply those lessons back home where we can do the most good.
I watch Apollo 13 now and no, it doesn’t make me want to be an astronaut. But it does make me want to harness any ingenuity I might possess and use it to help solve the problems that face my community. I watch Gravity and The Martian and am reminded of the individual’s capacity for resilience and instinct for survival. I watch Hidden Figures and marvel at the brilliance exhibited in the face of dehumanizing adversity, while being sobered by the fact that the moon seemingly remains easier to reach than racial equality. And I watch Interstellar and — every single time — am moved to tears by the notion that love could be a force that transcends time and space.
So if the question is should we stop making movies about space, my answer is a resounding no — with the glaringly large caveat that, as with all genres, there must be a marked increase in diverse faces and voices, both in front of and behind the camera. I want other four- and five-year-olds to have their own Apollo 13 (and twenty-somethings to have their Interstellar): a movie that lights a fire within you, a passion that grows and evolves and changes and leads you to strive to maximize your potential as best you can. In that regard, nothing stokes the imagination quite like space; the appeal of the unknown is that anything is possible no matter who you are or where you’re from. As a species, we’ve always looked to the stars and we still should — but what we take away from that stargazing can change.
Instead of a destination, let it be a humbling reminder of our relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things, as well as a signifier of how much we can accomplish when we put our minds to it. Look up at the sky and wonder about your place in the stars, but let it reinvigorate you. The work at home isn’t close to finished — these days it’s more clear than ever that if we think of equity as a collaborative effort, one side has barely begun — but if we can send men to the moon and bring them home safely, there’s no excuse for our inability to address the problems that have been staring us in the face since the first colonizers set foot on American soil. Let the mysteries of the unknown inspire you to meet the challenges of the known. If you’re in a position of privilege, take the small steps and help others make those giant leaps. Meet in the middle and then, perhaps, we can set our sights on the stars once again.