Hollywood’s Spacesuits

A sci-fi historian’s guide to movie spacesuits, from wacky to realistic

All suited up in Moon Zero Two (1969). (Courtesy Gary Westfahl)

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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?

The policy governing my writing career, whether it involves science fiction literature or science fiction film, has always been the same: to establish the parameters of my research, and then try to study every single work that falls within those parameters. Most studies of science fiction film, I think, are weakened by selectivity: critics devote most of their time to the films that everybody knows are good, and they ignore or neglect the films that everybody knows are awful. But some of my most valuable insights into the nature of the spacesuit film have come from films that other critics have paid no attention to – including, in addition to some films already mentioned, Gog (1954), the Italian Totò nella Luna (Totò in the Moon) (1957), First Man into Space (1959), the Czechoslovakian Baron Prášil (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen) (1961), and Mutiny in Outer Space (1965).

In sum, the last thing the world needs now is yet another analysis of Blade Runner (1982); I would instead encourage researchers to find and watch some science fiction films that almost no one has discussed before, and I strongly suspect that they will find the experience immensely rewarding.

See the photo gallery for more sci-fi movie spacesuits.


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