What if you were lost in space for the rest of your life? That’s the conundrum facing the stars of Morten Tyldum’s new drama Passengers. Thirty years into a one hundred and twenty year journey to a colony planet, Aurora and Jim (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) wake from hibernation to find they are trapped upon a luxurious but isolated ship for the next ninety years. The loneliness of space is something film makers have examined for almost as long as science fiction has existed, with the vast void of nothingness used to bring about introspection, terror, and more.
“At 372 miles above the Earth, there is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure, no oxygen. Life in space is impossible”. The chilling first words that appear on the screen in Oscar winning film Gravity underline exactly the antagonist of the piece. The emptiness of what surrounds her is a persistent theme of the film, both in terms of her ensuring her survival, and working through the pain of her past.
To our constantly connected world in particular, the notion of being absolutely stranded is both fascinating and terrifying.
A darker play on loneliness is Doug Jones’ seminal Moon, where we find a lone employee (Sam Rockwell) operating a fuel harvester on The Moon, before finding out the secret behind his situation. Here, the distance from his wife and unborn child add to the sense that he is very far from home. In both instances, the conflict within the film is the lead character’s enforced self-sufficiency. With nothing for an infinite distance in all directions, it’s down to them to save their lives using practically nothing but their ingenuity. Even in more uplifting films such as Apollo 13 or Ridley Scott’s The Martian, our heroes come to terms with the vast space between them and those that can help.
Of course, the only thing worse than being alone in space is being trapped with something trying to kill you. The sci-fi genre was revolutionised in 1979 by Alien, a haunted house style horror story where a crew is trapped aboard their own spaceship with an alien out to kill them. The film’s tagline, “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream” perfectly encapsulates the notion that Ellen Ripley is alone with the titular monster. Less, well, physical, but just as foreboding, was the monotone HAL-9000, the thorn in the side of 2001: A Space Odyssey's astronauts. Their separation from civilisation is compounded by HAL’s omnipresence, able to follow them anywhere in the ship, represented by a single red light and Douglas Rain’s chillingly calm tones. In both cases, space is represented as cold, unforgiving, a No Man's Land locking the protagonist in with terror. In the past Scott described his idea of space exploration as being similar to deep sea exploration, with nothing but “awfully black” darkness and particles for company, and that darkness enveloping the lonely vessels of Alien and the subsequent sci-fi masterpieces he also made. Just as the sea is represented as unforgiving in many a Hollywood story, so to would the skies above be dark and full of terrors.
But why do we enjoy these stories so much? The above films have scores of awards between them, hundreds of millions in box office receipts and reputations as some of the finest works of science fiction, if not cinema. The answer lies, once again, in emptiness – not a physical emptiness, but one of narrative. In any Earth-bound story, even the most dire of situations can be solved with an eleventh hour cavalry of some sort. Even more populist sci-fi such as Star Wars has relied on The Millennium Falcon swooping in and saving the day on occasion. However, when dealing with the realities of space in at least a semi-serious way, those saviours disappear.
To be truly alone, without any hope of contact from the outside world, is a scenario that is especially jarring in today's world. If you are reading this article, you are most likely linked to an unlimited wealth of knowledge and human contact from anywhere on the globe. To our constantly connected world in particular, the notion of being absolutely stranded is both fascinating and terrifying. To the modern world in particular, life in space seems truly impossible.