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Spacesuit Films

Entry updated 12 July 2021. Tagged: Film, Theme.

Spacesuit films, as defined by the critic who has promoted the term, Gary Westfahl, are those space films that endeavour to plausibly portray the harsh conditions and novel features of life in outer space and on other planets – such as the absence of air, zero or low Gravity, and dangerous radiation – as most prominently indicated by the fact that their characters constantly wear, or are in close proximity to, protective spacesuits. Space films which ignore or marginalize spacesuits – works in the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises being the most prominent examples – are by this measure falsely projecting the idea that life in space will be more or less like life on Earth, with the addition of a few bits of advanced Technology. Westfahl argues that the classic spacesuit films have not been properly appreciated because their recognition of the realities of space has forced them to devise an entirely new sort of cinematic narrative to match this new environment; but others would be inclined to embrace the traditional view that these "documentary-style" space films are simply dull and undramatic.

In the early Danish film Himmelskibet (1918; vt A Trip to Mars; vt A Ship to Heaven; vt 400 Million Miles from Earth), spacesuits of a sort are briefly donned and discarded by astronauts about to land on an earthlike Mars, but the first true spacesuit film was Fritz Lang's Die Frau im Mond (1929; vt Woman in the Moon). True, Lang cheated by having his space travellers land in a valley on the dark side of the Moon that had a breathable atmosphere, but they brought along spacesuits resembling diving suits, and one character does wear one on the Moon before discovering that they are not necessary. The Russian film Kosmicheskiy Reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella (1936; vt The Space Voyage; vt The Space Ship) more realistically had its lunar pioneers constantly wear spacesuits on an airless Moon as they delighted in the freedom offered by its lower Gravity. Much more prominent and influential, however, was the American film Destination Moon (1950), co-scripted by Robert A Heinlein and purportedly based on his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), though Heinlein jettisoned its silly plot about teenagers discovering Nazis on the Moon, to instead present a doggedly authentic portrayal of how patriotic American industrialists might band together to launch a manned rocket to the Moon. Many conventions of the genre, ranging from the contorted faces of astronauts as they initially accelerate away from the Earth to the need to venture outside one's Spaceship to perform emergency repairs, originated in this film, which was also (unusually for such films) a tremendous box-office success. It was followed by other films of a similar nature, such as Project Moonbase (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954), and Conquest of Space (1955); British ventures into the form were Spaceways (1953) and Satellite in the Sky (1956); and the Russians contributed Nebo Zovyot (1959; vt The Sky Calls). One may also include in this category of films those Space Documentaries which contain fictional sequences, like the Disneyland episode "Man and the Moon" (1955) and the Russian documentary Doroga k Zvezdam (1957; vt Road to the Stars). Functioning as both a summary and a continuation of this tradition was the television series Men into Space (1959-1960), which introduced the topic of how pioneering astronauts might uncover evidence of extraterrestrial life (see Aliens).

But such films were swimming against the tide, as the drive to attract audiences with more conventional entertainment drove producers away from authenticity and toward what Westfahl termed pseudo-spacesuit films, which might gesture toward realism with perfunctorily introduced spacesuits but otherwise merely transplanted familiar generic patterns – from melodramatic serials, slapstick comedies, and horror films – into the novel setting of space. Most of these were unmemorable, though occasional films had features of interest, such as Britain's horrific Quatermass television miniseries and films – The Quatermass Experiment (1953), filmed as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955; vt The Creeping Unknown), and Quatermass II (1955), filmed as Quatermass II [1957; vt Enemy from Space] – the Italian adventure Space Men (1960; vt Assignment Outer Space), the UK comedy The Mouse on the Moon (1963) – based on Leonard Wibberley's novel The Mouse on the Moon – and the American comedy The Reluctant Astronaut (1967). In the late 1960s, though, the impending Apollo Moon landing brought a new burst of genuine spacesuit films: Countdown (1967), Marooned (1969), and most memorably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which paid homage to many predecessors while extending the argument of the spacesuit film by positing that ultimately, humanity would have to undergo Evolution in order to truly conquer space.

Spacesuit films have continued to appear since 1970, though most are either nonfictional accounts of actual space triumphs, like Apollo 13 (1995) or the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998), or involve events that while implausible might have really occurred, like the unplanned launching of children into space in the films Stowaway to the Moon (1975) and SpaceCamp (1986) or the recruitment of elderly ex-astronauts to perform a unique mission in Space Cowboys (2000). There have also been a film about astronauts pretending to land on Mars (Capricorn One [1977]), films in which heroic astronauts attempt to prevent Asteroids from striking Earth (Armageddon [1998], Deep Impact [1998]), and films about first landings on Mars (The Angry Red Planet [1959; vt Invasion of Mars], Mission to Mars [2000], Red Planet [2000]; see also Mars). Such films, though, are vastly outnumbered by films that follow the model of Star Trek and Star Wars in offering viewers a comfortingly Earthlike cosmos. Still, a few recent spacesuit films – ranging from the silly Sunshine (2007) and Apollo 18 (2011) to the more realistic and involving Moon (2009), Gravity (2013), The Martian (2015), High Life (2018), Ad Astra (2019) and Stowaway (2021) – do suggest that there remains a certain hunger for films interrogating the ways that humans might actually contrive to inhabit and domesticate the most forbidding environment they have ever encountered. [GW]

see also: Cinema; Destination Space; Raumpatrouille: Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion; Space Sweepers; Trapped in Space.

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