Sitting in a tin can: why sci-fi films are finally telling astronaut life like it is

Anybody who fancies watching a new science fiction film this month can count their lucky stars. A Netflix drama, Stowaway, features Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim as a trio of astronauts who are on their way to Mars when they discover that an unfortunate launch-plan engineer, Shamier Anderson, is still onboard. The trouble is, there is only enough oxygen for three of them. American viewers can also see Voyagers (due for release in Britain in July), in which 30 hormonal starship passengers are preparing to colonise another world. The trouble is, something goes wrong on their mission, too, and the trip turns into an interplanetary Lord of the Flies. The moral of both stories is that you should probably push “astronaut” a few slots down your list of dream jobs. But if you’ve caught any other science fiction films recently, it’s bound to be quite far down the list, anyway.

Again and again over the past decade, cinema has warned us that venturing beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is uncomfortable, dangerous, exhaustingly difficult, frequently tedious, and almost certain to involve interplanetary angst and asphyxiation. George Clooney’s morose The Midnight Sky rounded off 2020 with a fatal spacewalk. Aniara and Passengers posited that existence on a colony ship was a lot grimmer than Wall-E had led us to believe. The “sad dads in space” sub-genre coalesced with Brad Pitt’s Freudian moping in Ad Astra, and Robert Pattinson’s in High Life. No wonder today’s youngsters would rather be YouTubers or influencers than astronauts. The overriding thesis of current science fiction films is this: space travel is rubbish.

The films in question are usually “hard sci-fi”. They unfold in the near future, as opposed to the 25th century, or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The characters don’t have snazzy Lycra uniforms, they have bulky spacesuits and fish-bowl helmets. They don’t use warp drives or teleporters to zip around the cosmos, they’re stuck with industrial-looking vehicles that trundle through the void for months or years. Instead of fighting acid-blood xenomorphs, they have to fend off dogs (High Life) or baboons (Ad Astra) or, more often, each other. Orgies and/or murders are inevitable. Life-support systems are unreliable. And even the sturdiest spacecraft is just one asteroid shower away from being scrap metal. Don’t imagine that astronauts have a cheerier time on Earth, either. Judging by the characters played by Eva Green in Proxima and Natalie Portman in Lucy in the Sky, the only thing more upsetting than going to space is preparing to go, or coming back afterwards.

The space travel is rubbish (STIR) trope had been touched on before, of course, in such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Silent Running. But a new fleet of STIR films blasted off the launchpad when Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity came out in 2013, and screenwriters everywhere scribbled “debris cloud” and “tether snaps during spacewalk” in their notebooks. The other big trendsetter was a similarly well-researched and painstakingly realised survival drama: in 2015, Ridley Scott’s The Martian argued that an astronaut’s life wasn’t about boldly going where no man has gone before, but about growing potatoes in your own poo. After that, there were two tributes to Neil Armstrong, Damien Chazelle’s First Man in 2018 and the Apollo 11 documentary in 2019; neither of them science fiction, but both of them key to reminding us that science fact can be traumatising enough in itself. And since then, countless films have pinched their bleak plots and melancholy moods from David Bowie’s Space Oddity: “Here am I sitting in a tin can ... Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong ... ”

Dr Keith M Johnston, the author of Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction, sees the STIR wave as a reaction to two things. The first of these is the Marvel, DC and Star Wars blockbusters that have cornered the market in monsters and ray guns. “That side of sci-fi is fairly well catered for,” he says, “so elsewhere the genre has turned away from glossy big-budget fun and back to something serious.” Even the more far-fetched of the last decade’s science fiction films, such as Interstellar, have dwelled on the emotional toll and technological hassle of flying across the universe. Meanwhile, the alien invasions in Arrival, Annihilation and Color Out of Space have invited us to gaze into the abyss, and not – Will Smith-style – to punch the abyss in its bug-eyed face.

Another thing these films are responding to, says Johnston, is the contemporary reality of space exploration and communication. “We get regular updates from the International Space Station, we see people talking to us, singing to us, doing experiments, so we get used to the idea that being an astronaut is a job with large stretches of mundanity. Nasa’s television channel, Nasa TV, is the same. With the Mars rovers, you’ve got the launch, and you’ve got the big event, which is the landing, and in between there are months where nothing is happening.” What’s even more disillusioning, says Johnston, is the ego-driven work of the billionaire build-a-rocket boys, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. “They’re taking the excitement out of space travel.”

But what about the sheer gloominess of these STIR films? Considering that so many of their characters are searching for somewhere new to live, because our own planet is in such a mess, it’s fair to assume that climate change is a factor. “They tackle the terrestrial environment from three directions,” says Dr Mark Bould, author of The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture. “Gravity, for instance, points out that space is really inhospitable, and our only hope for survival as a species is Earth. Aniara shows that space is really big, so don’t waste time planning on there being a Planet B any time soon. And the miserable-astronauts-back-on-Earth movies suggest that the planet we have fashioned through our economic, social and political systems might be biologically habitable, but is a pretty miserable world even for the absurdly privileged white folks of the global north.” So ... don’t come to science fiction for escapism. The message is that there’s no escape.

One curious aspect of these films, with their isolation and anxiety, is that they seem to be tailor-made for lockdown viewing, despite being products of the pre-Covid-19 era. If they had come out in the next 10 years, rather than the last 10, I would have said that they were all about being cooped up at home with the same people for weeks on end. As it is, they can claim to be what so few science fiction films ever are: genuinely ahead of their time.

• Stowaways is released on Netflix on 22 April.