space movies

First Man, Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey: When Auteurs Go to Space

Photo: Universal Pictures, Corbis via Getty Images, Warner Bros.

There are three new space movies coming out over the next few months, from three of the best filmmakers working today. Damien Chazelle’s First Man opens this week. Claire Denis’s High Life (which just played the New York Film Festival) will likely open sometime in early 2019. And James Gray’s Ad Astra, which just released its first image, is due in theaters this coming January, though a possible earlier Oscar-qualifying release is still in the cards. I’ve only seen two of the titles in question, but it’s a safe bet that, given their directors, each will prove to be dramatically different from the other. And there’s one more thing I’m confident of: All three of these filmmakers’ careers will be forever changed by these movies.

Something special happens when an auteur goes to space. They push their stylistic and thematic limits. The vast emptiness of the cosmos, combined with the sudden malleability of time, has a way of bringing out the more experimental side of a filmmaker. You can see it in First Man, which might be Chazelle’s most emotionally reflective work yet. In telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s quest for the moon, the director mostly employs a propulsive, head-down, handheld style, but selectively returns to brief flashbacks and reveries about the astronaut’s daughter, who died at a very young age, and the moon itself, which at times seems more like a dream object than a tangible goal. Once Armstrong gets to the moon, First Man becomes almost abstract, with long, silent passages on the lunar surface, much of the screen sheathed in darkness — like some sort of waking dream.

Chazelle is telling a mostly true story about one of the biggest events in human history, so he has some factual and scientific milestones he has to hit. Claire Denis, on the other hand, is working with pure speculation and metaphor in High Life. She’s not even interested in getting the zero-G stuff right. (Neil deGrasse Tyson will have a conniption fit if he sees this movie.) High Life is set in a distant future where groups of convicts are sent off into space inside mini-colonies to explore a black hole. During their journey — in a ship which looks more like a vintage Norwegian speaker than anything else — these convicted criminals are forced into sex experiments by the resident scientist, played by Juliette Binoche. The story is told in flashback by Robert Pattinson as he tries to raise his young daughter in the vast reaches of space; the two of them are the sole survivors of this mission, destined to spend the rest of their lives alone in the cosmos, ultimately headed toward a black hole that will probably just destroy them.

High Life is enigmatic even by Claire Denis standards. Looking for intimate, seemingly offhand moments, she’s interested in texture over narrative, behavior over character. This is why many of her films work as miniatures, and why she’s able to let her scenes go on and on. She doesn’t have conventional story arcs to finalize, or character conflicts to resolve. High Life presents her with a broader canvas, at least temporally speaking. The story takes place over years, even decades. The result is a weird hybrid: a narrative that moves, but also confounds. It offers little character development or resolution, but plenty of incident.

It’s not hard to see why such films are getting made these days. In recent years, space movies have proven quite lucrative, so there tends to be at least one big release every awards season: Think Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (which has a lot of the trappings of a space movie even though it is, technically speaking, not set in space), Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, or Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. (First Man is presumably hoping to benefit from this trend as well.) And in almost each of these cases, the director emerges from the experience somewhat changed.

To put it another way: The space movie has become a crucible through which many of our most important filmmakers must pass. Villeneuve has made plenty of acclaimed, artful pictures, but Arrival is his most elliptical feature to date, a time-bending rumination on loss and language. While Interstellar’s temporal experiments aren’t quite on the order of Inception’s or Dunkirk’s, it is still Nolan’s most ambitious and personal work, attempting to fuse intimacy and emotion with centuries-spanning spectacle.

Gravity, meanwhile, demonstrated Cuaron’s mastery of technique in its extended, unbroken zero-G shots that took in space walks, orbital disasters, and hairsbreadth escapes. Not unlike Villeneuve, the director had his share of hits and beloved titles before then, but with the success of Gravity, he found himself on another level of acclaim and prestige altogether. (December’s Roma will be his first release since.) Of these aforementioned filmmakers, only Ridley Scott seemed to treat his space movie like any other feature — maybe because he made his real space movie earlier in his career, with Alien, one of the works that marked him early on as someone to take seriously.

Of course, the granddaddy of auteur space movies is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There had been all sorts of sci-fi pictures before it, but with his elliptical epic of human development and galactic exploration, Kubrick achieved a quantum leap in both filmmaking style and personal mystique. Before 2001, he had been a confident, careful storyteller in the classical mold. (Even Dr. Strangelove, with its dark lunacy, is told in fairly straightforward fashion; though it’s a satire, it remains curiously faithful to Red Alert, the deadly serious novel on which it’s based. Kubrick chanced upon the comic insanity of the movie by mostly playing the story straight.) But after 2001, with its myriad mysteries and mesmerizing longueurs, not to mention its mind-blowing ambition, Kubrick became regarded as more than a mere director; he became a philosopher, maybe even a demigod. After that, nothing he made would be accepted as merely a movie.

It is in part the ongoing specter of 2001 that fuels such fascination with the space movie, and Kubrick’s film is almost always the standard against which the others are held. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, made several years afterwards, was deemed the Soviet answer to 2001, and it may well have been: Tarkovsky loathed Kubrick’s picture, and saw in its technical proficiency and speculative qualities an anti-human bent. That might be one reason why Solaris, despite having its own share of space-movie philosophizing and languor, is so rooted in desire and memory.  When Steven Soderbergh remade Tarkovsky’s classic, however, he seemed to take a page out of both filmmakers’ works: His Solaris is just as internalized as Tarkovsky’s, but it also has a sci-fi spirit akin to Kubrick’s — a desire to imagine how the future might feel. (Of course, it flopped.)

The desire to stretch the limits of form can affect even those space movies that don’t quite warrant it. Danny Boyle was already known as a stylist when he made 2007’s Sunshine, about a group of astronauts and scientists on a last-ditch mission to nuke our dying sun in order to recharge it. But for this effort, Boyle topped himself: Sunshine is riddled with flash frames,  upside-down shots, weird dream imagery — the works. And things get progressively more aestheticized as the ship approaches the sun. Which is perhaps understandable, save for one problem: The narrative itself actually becomes more conventional as the film proceeds. A little past the halfway mark, Sunshine basically turns into a slasher movie in space. But this development is treated in such cursory fashion that it feels like nobody told the director: The imagery is so abstract, the cutting so hectic, the emotional tangents so wild that at various points we wonder if maybe we’re just imagining that a crazy intruder is suddenly running around the ship killing our heroes. The result is a fascinating, troubled, occasionally beautiful work at war with itself.

Full disclosure: I love Danny Boyle. I think he’s probably made more masterpieces than most filmmakers working today. But it feels in some ways like Sunshine was supposed to send him into a rarefied cinematic orbit, and failed to do so as a result of its financial disappointment and middling reception by critics. Since then, Boyle has won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars with Slumdog Millionaire, directed an amazing — amazing — Olympics opening ceremony, and brought to the screen one of those highly touted Aaron Sorkin scripts that only our best cinematic minds are ever allowed to touch. Even so, it’s hard not to feel like he left something behind with Sunshine. He’s never attempted anything that stylistically daring since. Maybe, had it succeeded, he wouldn’t be the kind of director today who’d sign on to do James Bond flicks.

Of course, there are plenty of space movies where the filmmakers didn’t try to rock the boat. Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is one of his most beloved hits, and the mind reels at what might have happened had he tried to get his experimental freak on. Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is a tad weirder, but that’s because it’s based on a Carl Sagan novel about humanity’s first encounter with an alien species. But there, too, the director’s restraint feels almost counterintuitive — and pays creative dividends as a result. Perhaps these are the exceptions that prove the rule: Both pictures are among the high points of their respective directors’ careers. In the case of Apollo 13, it vaulted Howard into the exclusive realm of prestige directors; he’d win a bunch of Oscars a few years later. With Zemeckis, Contact was his follow-up to the Oscar-winning runaway hit Forrest Gump, but it could be argued that his sci-fi effort is better regarded today.

So maybe the space movie does for directors what space movies so often tell us space does for humans — that, freed from the bonds of Earth, out there in the cosmos, we become ourselves. Perhaps similarly, filmmakers are liberated by the genre, and the setting. The unfussy storytellers hunker down, the philosophers become more philosophical, and the stylists go full-on bonkers. And maybe that’s why we are so often drawn to these movies: They give us a glimpse into these filmmakers’ true selves.

First Man, Gravity, 2001: When Auteurs Go to Space