Where are all the space exploration films?

Will Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar bring back the age of 2001 and Forbidden Planet?

Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey

With Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar returning sci-fi to the stars, we ask: where have all the space exploration films gone?

In the last few years, we’ve seen an astounding rise in science fiction cinema as a mainstream form of entertainment.

First, there are the omnipresent Marvel and DC-based blockbusters, who have gone a long way in forever quelling any argument that comic-book films are a niche product or a temporary fad.

Disney/Marvel Studios has projects laid out until 2028 according to some sources, and Warner Bros has no intention of hiding its similar intentions with its DC property. Add to that the regular flow of X-Men, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four films, to name but a few examples, and it seems there is a new comic-book/superhero film coming out every other month.

Then there’s the plethora of disaster movies, monster mashes, apocalyptic zombie blockbusters, post-apocalyptic survival dramas and, yes, the (very welcome) resurgence of space-related films.

Star Trek’s reboot has been a commercial success, Star Wars is revving up again and alien invaders seem to have a strong renewed interest in some precious Earth real estate.

Avengers Assemble, District 9, Monsters, Man Of Steel, Transformers and Thor: The Dark World are but a few mentions of recent We-Are-Not-Alone stories that have proved increasingly popular – and populous – in multiplexes.

Even the biggest film of all time is a reverse-alien-invasion film, about three-metre (ten-feet) tall blue tree-hugging aliens teaming up with an Australian paraplegic against human invaders onto their homeworld. But there is one very noticeable gap in this sudden saturation of science fiction cinema, ranging from socio-political (District 9, The Hunger Games) to purely escapist (Transformers, some more Transformers). Where is all the exploration sci-fi? Where are the undiscovered countries? Where are the transcendental breakthroughs in humanity? And where are the space operas?

In a world where NASA’s Kepler mission is finding actual habitable planets in their dozens, the study of quantum physics is advancing like never before and real-life projects are aiming to go into real-life space to mine real-life asteroids, the best our films can do is crash a few space ships/radioactive mega-lizards/militant chimpanzees/alien sea monsters onto the Golden Gate Bridge every year?

Why aren’t the Star Trek films actually, y’know, trekking? To the stars? Yes, there is a Vulcan chapter in the first/eleventh Star Trek and a Klingon fly-by in Into Darkness, but these instances are dealt with by hitting a button, punching a lever, and boom, we’re there, ready to get some ground-based gruntwork (running from boulders and death rays or shooting at Klingons) underway.

There’s no wonder of discovery in Star Trek. There’s nary a mention of the inevitable seismic shift in human consciousness and cosmic identity with the revelation of Kal-El on Earth in Man Of Steel before we’re subjected to the next sensory-numbing set piece. And in the only plausible recent candidate for the tag of an exploration sci-fi film, Prometheus, the actual exploration is dealt with in the first 25 minutes or so, to be followed by running and screaming through various corridors. The closest we come is actually in the irreverent Thor films, which are opening up a potential for an exploration into a whole new universe of discovery.

Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank in 2003's The Core
Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank in 2003’s The Core

The last real great mainstream exploration sci-fi film is not Journey To The Centre Of The Earth from 2007. It’s based on a century-old novel and offers nothing new except THINGS! COMING AT YOU! IN 3D! It’s not Avatar either, on the very simple grounds that it’s Pocahontas (although, to be fair, Pocahontas was a New World discovery tale, so we may need to find a better argument). No it may just have been 2003’s The Core. Yes. The Core is an awful, awful film on so many levels. But it is still a great one, if for one reason and one reason only. It goes out there (or more specifically, in there).

The Core boldly and unashamedly presents wildly outlandish scenarios and territories. It revels in the discovery of one new and previously unexplored plane of subterranean inexplicability after another. It offers a sense of childlike wonder, of intrigue and the very simple but true argument that we haven’t discovered everything yet.

Hell, it even invented unobtainium, right here on Earth, six years before Mr Cameron started drilling for it on Pandora. But why has the exploration sci-fi film genre been dormant for so long? Why aren’t we making more films like 2001, Contact, Lifeforce or Forbidden Planet today? Films that talk to us about the human condition as much as – or in the best cases, more than – the chance to blow stuff up.

Where are all the explorers? The inventors? The dreamers? Why are so many hammering our senses into the ground and why are so few trying to expand them? Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer. All we know is that for some reason or other, we have become so preoccupied with the destruction of our own world that we’ve forgotten to explore new ones.

Could Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar change that sad state of affairs for the exploration genre? We sure hope so.

Interstellar is released 7 November 2014. You can buy Christopher Nolan’s Inception on Blu-ray for £7.15 at Amazon.co.uk.