Space on Screen

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) is the first science fiction film. After all, the sky is the original cinematic experience: the lights go up and come down; the moon and constellations change; the colors shift, fade, and intensify; and the weather provides drama and tension. Staring at the sky in night or day is an emotional, humanizing experience. It emphasizes how small you are in the face of the universe. Thus it only makes sense that one of the first subjects for narrative cinema would be the desire to explore what’s up there.

(Digression: I, like most babies of the 80s and 90s, came to know Melies’ work because of the Smashing Pumpkin’s video for “Tonight, Tonight,” which remains most excellent.)

covers of four movies: hidden figures, the dish, the astronaut wives club, and apollo 13

What I want to think about today, though, isn’t films such as A Trip to the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Contact, or Armageddon, which concern themselves with space in an entirely imaginative or fictional way, but instead with those that attempt to tell the “true” story of human space exploration.

For the sake of conciseness, I’m going to limit myself to The Right Stuff (1983), Apollo 13 (1995), The Dish (2000)*, The Astronaut Wives Club (2015)**, Hidden Figures (2016), First Man (2018)*, and Apollo 11 (2019)**, arguing that while these films are about humans leaving earth, neither the films nor the history they represent successfully abandon earth’s baggage, specifically gender and race.

A few micro summaries in case you haven’t seen these movies:

  • The Right Stuff focuses on the Mercury 7 astronauts and the earliest days of the American space program. It’s based on the book by Tom Wolfe.
  • Apollo 13 is about the disaster during the titular mission.
  • The Dish turns its attention to the Parkes Observatory in Australia, which received and broadcast the TV signal from Apollo 11.
  • The Astronaut Wives Club represents how the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts (plus a few later additions) experienced the 1960s. It was adapted from a book by Lily Koppel.
  • Hidden Figures tells the stories of three African American mathematicians who worked at NASA in the mid-twentieth century. Margot Lee Shetterly’s book provided the source material.
  • First Man, a biopic of Neil Armstrong, zeroes in on Gemini 8 and Apollo 11.
  • Apollo 11 is a documentary about that mission assembled entirely from archival footage.

When we take these movies as a group, the first cleavage is between the astronaut-centric films and the earth-centric ones. The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and First Man are all celebrations of The Astronaut (TM), while The Dish, The Astronaut Wives Club, and Hidden Figures are about what happens at home, focusing on the people who make the missions happen or who are affected by them secondarily. Apollo 11 is more or less evenly balanced.

In this first subgroup of films, The Astronaut is a man, a specific type of super hyper manly man. He rides horses and motorcycles and drives his convertible too fast. He has a beautiful wife who worries for him (more about her in a bit) and a gorgeous house and adorable children. He is absolutely competent and betrays few emotions, though he is quick to make jokes as a demonstration of how unafraid he is or as a deflection.

The Right Stuff established this archetype, and it’s fascinating how little deviation from it there has been. In Apollo 13, Kevin Bacon, as the first truly single American astronaut, is almost hilariously cliched, while Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton are slightly more textured versions of the same type. Even more recently, my most substantial problem with First Man is how conventional its vision of Armstrong was.

In astronaut-focused films, The Astronaut’s masculinity is often contrasted against that of the engineer. Few of the engineers in these films have names or specific personalities. The engineer wears white button-down shirts with skinny black ties and glasses. Always glasses. He–and it’s almost exclusively a he–is very, very anxious. The engineer in this first set of films does not have a spouse or a home life; he is utterly devoted to work.

Apollo 13 does name Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris), but the flight director is this type down to the pocket protector. The film perfectly exemplifies how difficult it is to tell a compelling story when the primary action is technological. It chooses to focus on the (repressed) emotions in the capsule rather than the frantic work in Houston to address the catastrophe, evenly though, arguably, what’s primarily happening is the work of the engineers. I can’t deny that it’s affecting, and of course the astronauts did stand to lose the most if the mission couldn’t be salvaged, but it feels like a cop out.

Additionally, it makes The Astronaut and the astronaut wife play the same role. In a hilarious essay for Vulture last year, Maggie Fremont gave “Nine Tips for Becoming the Perfect Astronaut Movie Wife,” drawing largely from Claire Foye’s performance in First Man and Kathleen Quinlin’s in Apollo 13. These tips boil down to smothering your fear and dread in order to project perfect mid-century femininity–which is almost exactly parallel to what The Astronaut does.

In these films, The Astronaut and the engineer are two poles of white, straight masculinity: the body and the mind. But bifurcating those ways of knowing renders The Astronaut so atavistic that he has almost no agency. He is along for the engineer’s ride; his wife merely frets about it.

In the earth-centric films, the astronaut (when we see him) is not much changed. Glenn Powell’s John Glenn in Hidden Figures is more of a Boy Scout, but he still fits the type. The engineer and the wife are entirely different, however.

Take Hidden Figures. While the film does have some garden-variety engineers–Jim Parsons and Kevin Costner–it’s focused on another set of engineers, those played by Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer. Each of these women has her own arc: Henson trying to do her job in an office full of racists who belittle and demean her and her romance with Mahershala Ali, Monae’s push to be admitted to a segregated all-white school and the tension this causes in her marriage, and Spencer’s attempts to provide opportunities for the African American computer pool and to become a manager.

In every case, gender and race stand in the women’s way. These engineers have to remake the environment (e.g., NASA’s Langley facility) because it wasn’t designed to accommodate them. Only by making NASA itself as radically modern as its mission will humans get to the moon. While whiteness and masculinity are subtextual in the astronaut-centric films (for both The Astronaut and the engineer), they become text in Hidden Figures.

For more on this, I highly recommend Tom and Lorenzo’s analysis of Hidden Figures’ costumes, which argues that the film turns the central engineers into super heroes. In this way, Hidden Figures supplants The Astronaut with Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy–diverse, three-dimensional engineers–to genuinely revolutionary results.

The Dish lacks the racial or gender diversity of Hidden Figures, but it introduces American chauvinism into the mix. The American engineer sent to oversee the project (Patrick Warburton) thinks the Australians are rubes. The Australians think the American is joyless and arrogant. In order to salvage the Apollo television broadcast, they’ll need to abandon this binary, reductive, nationalist framework for the greater good.

What’s singular about The Dish is that astronauts don’t appear in it beyond the archival footage. So, like Hidden Figures, because it has lots of engineers, it has lots of different kinds of engineers: from Warburton’s stick in the mud, who could have wandered off the set of Apollo 13, to a gentle beta math nerd (Tom Long) and several positions in between. These engineers weren’t cut out of a mold; they’re all unique. It’s the danger of the single story, in the words of Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, exemplified.

But more isn’t necessarily better. In The Astronaut Wives Club, we meet lots of different women all of whom just happen to be married to astronauts, from the one who’d rather be a pilot herself (Odette Annable) to the glamorous one (Yvonne Strahovski), the one with a dark secret (Erin Cummings), the perfect military spouse (Zoe Boyle), etc.

The Astronaut Wives Club does some things extremely well; its productive design and costuming are top notch, for example. However, while it foregrounds gender, it fails to interrogate whiteness and class. It wants us to believe that these women are stand-ins for all American women in the 1960s, with a variety of hopes and dreams that are inexorably tied up with and limited by their womanhood. But of course these women have privileges that Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy from Hidden Figures don’t. The show’s few attempts to grapple with this–an African American housekeeper and her son who routinely run into the astronauts in Florida, a protest in which someone reads “Whitey on the Moon“–feel shoehorned in.

And, related, while The Astronaut Wives Club is grounded in real people and real history, it suffers from the Forrest Gump problem. All of the 60s motifs, cliches, and situations pop up, and the show (because, as I discuss below, it is a show and not a movie) begins to feel like an exercise in checking boxes, not a coherent whole or a character-driven piece.

So while astronaut-centric space films suffer from a reductive take on gender, earth-centric space films have more diversity, though they don’t always use that to show what those social structures mean or how they’ve shaped human space exploration.

And this brings us to Apollo 11. When I saw it in theaters a few months ago, what struck me was how different it felt from other space movies. It’s carved out of archival footage from the Apollo 11 mission, including a planned though later scraped behind the scenes TV special. There is no overarching narrator, no talking heads. Instead, it uses image and soundtrack to build the story. The rising tension, the complications, the resolution: all the bits and pieces of drama are there, but there aren’t characters in the classic sense.

The vast majority of voices that we hear are white and male, though the crowds watching the launch and the later moon walk are diverse and a few white women and men of color do appear in mission control, in the labs, and so on. But what it has is magnitude. Nothing else I’ve ever seen on space history has better captured how totalizing this effort was. And in deemphasizing individual contributions, Apollo 11 managed to obviate some of the problems often present in space films. These astronauts aren’t The Astronaut, and these engineers aren’t engineers. I’m certain someone could respond that they aren’t particularly developed at all, but the film’s focus is on the collective in a way that feels fresh and surprising.

What I’d like to see in space movies going forward is what I’d like to see in space exploration moving forward: more diversity and reflection. If space exploration is to truly be human space exploration, it needs to feel more, well, human. And whoever is in the capsule and mission control, whatever stories we’re telling in the next wave of space movies, I hope we’re less reductive about it–if only for variety.

(*If you’re curious, I’ve written about The Dish and First Man at much greater length. Links on the titles in this paragraph.)

(**Yes, one of these, The Astronaut Wives Club, is a short-lived TV show. If I’m including it, why not also put From Earth to the Moon (1998) in there? Essentially, much of the plot of From Earth is covered elsewhere and its visual style overlaps heavily with Apollo 13. While From Earth did have one wives-centric episode–episode 11, if you’re curious–Wives Club covers that ground more thoroughly. And yeah, Apollo 11 is the only documentary on my list, but it has a classic three-act narrative structure and absolutely STUNNING visuals that warrant its inclusion here.)

2 thoughts on “Space on Screen

  1. I keep thinking about the astronaut-engineer conflict in The Right Stuff. How the astronauts want to be treated like pilots, not monkeys. There they are fighting for agency, because they want to be more than the pretty faces, they want to be in control. A little ironic.

    1. YES! They (both the characters and the real life astronauts) knew they didn’t have much power. They were figureheads…who ultimately were happy to go on figureheading.

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