A sci-fi historian’s guide to movie spacesuits, from wacky to realistic.
- By Diane Tedeschi
- AirSpaceMag.com, September 13, 2012
Courtesy Gary Westfahl
(Page 3 of 4)
I do believe, like many others, that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science fiction film ever made. I especially appreciate the film because it goes about as far as science fiction can go in probing humanity’s future, taking audiences to the point where we come into contact with alien life and start advancing to the next stage of human evolution. As I discuss in my book, the film also presents the unique argument that in order to truly conquer space, humans will have to transform themselves so that they can survive in the vacuum of space (like the Star Child, floating in Earth orbit at the end of the film). Finally, the film wisely says little about the nature of its aliens, and of the advanced human race they create; for attempting to take the story any further – to describe aliens or superhumans in detail – is essentially impossible for human observers, so science fiction works that make the effort merely fall back upon conventional—and very human—characterizations. This becomes particularly clear if one studies, as I have studied, the disappointing sequels to 2001 written by Arthur C. Clarke, which drop the subject of human advancement and gradually transform the film’s enigmatic aliens into blundering idiots.
Do you agree that some sci fi movies are so bad that they are worth watching? What is your opinion of Plan 9 from Outer Space?
In the course of researching this book, I was required to watch an extraordinary number of films that I could logically anticipate would be very bad, so much so that it became my habit to regularly inform my wife, “I have to go watch another bad science fiction film.” As a result, for a long time my wife mistakenly imagined that “bad science fiction films,” not spacesuit films, represented the actual subject of my next book. However, I derive no pleasure from watching such films merely to laugh at the subpar acting, inane stories, risible dialogue, and atrocious special effects; in one article, I likened this to laughing at handicapped people. Thus, I did sit through Plan 9 from Outer Space once, many years ago, but I never want to go through that mind-numbing experience again.
I do, however, cherish some bad science fiction films because they are also interesting films; by all standards of cinematic excellence, for example, Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965) is every bit as awful as Plan 9 from Outer Space, but it offers a fascinatingly incongruous mixture of narrative patterns from previous space films, and the film does address an important issue, albeit ineptly, the question of whether space travel is best carried out by humans or by machines. Also, most observers regard “The Invisible Enemy” (1964) as one of the very worst episodes of “The Outer Limits,” and I can understand why, because from one perspective it is merely a contrived story about a ludicrous reptilian monster lurking beneath the sands of Mars. However, I discuss that episode at length in The Spacesuit Film because it is focused on another very important issue raised by spaceflight: namely, should missions be controlled by the astronauts on the scene, or by their experienced and well-informed monitors on Earth? The episode presents the argument that the astronauts should be in charge, even though NASA has maintained its policy – incorrectly, in my view – of micromanaging all space missions from the ground.
What are some undiscovered gems among the space science fiction film genre that our readers should consider watching?
In one respect, this is a difficult question, for I fully recognize that the things I find entertaining in space films are not necessarily things that other people will find entertaining. But I will venture a few recommendations. Project Moonbase, co-authored by Robert A. Heinlein, is largely a childish adventure story, but one has to admire a film from 1953 that presents a woman as the commander of the first lunar mission – given that assignment, we ultimately learn, by a female President of the United States; the film also offers some striking scenes of life on a zero-gravity space station, with people walking on the ceiling and sitting on the walls.
Another film from that era is properly derided for the nonsensical idea that motivates its space mission – the theory that meteors all have some mysterious protective coating that scientists need to study in order to make spaceflight possible – but Riders to the Stars merits a second look as the first film that accurately anticipated the collaborative nature of space flight, as its astronauts are constantly in contact with, and depend upon the advice of, capable monitors on the ground, and it also features some of the best acting I have observed in true spacesuit films, most notably Martha Hyer as scientist Jane Flynn.
What advice do you have for people who are interested in writing books and articles about sci fi film?