Two new films probe the existential angst of space travel and the alien other. They take their place in a well-established sci-fi school of philosophyby Adam Mars-Jones / January 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Science fiction is a genre doomed to profundity, unable to avoid banging its head or stubbing its toes against philosophical dilemmas as it goes about telling its stories. Though it doesn’t seem likely that well-thumbed copies of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness show up on the sets of many space operas, existentialism is always likely to put in an appearance when the theme is our aloneness in the universe or else the encounter, feared and desired, with otherness and the alien. Being alone in the universe and not being alone in the universe —two inexhaustible subjects.
A pair of recent American films, neither masterpieces but full of enjoyable elements, highlight these themes. In Passengers Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), an engineer travelling in suspended animation and one of thousands of people heading for a colonised planet, is woken nearly a century ahead of schedule. In the first third of the film, its most successful part, he learns that to be the only wakeful person in a world of sleepers is a living nightmare. This is solitude in its paradoxical modern form, full of empty interaction. When he wakes up, a smiling hologram leans over him with reassurance. Then he receives an upbeat briefing from a simulated speaker addressing a whole room full of passengers, unaware that she has an audience of one. When Jim tries to point this out, she sweetly raises a phantom finger and asks for questions to be left until the end.
In Passengers the engine of the spaceship Avalon is silent as it heads towards the colony planet. How quiet is deep space? Quiet seems the wrong word to denote the impossibility of sound. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) is one of the few films set outside the Earth’s atmosphere to respect its silence on the soundtrack. (Even Alien, despite the famous tagline of “In space no one can hear you scream,” made sure the throb of the Nostromo’s engines was audible from the first sequence.) Already those sounds tell us that the reality of nothingness has been blotted out—perhaps because a deep sound gives a powerful cue to our visual imagination, making it less likely that we will see the special effects in front of us as unreal.