The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Gravity scene
The movie Gravity, released just last year, is one of the highest-rated “cislunar” movies in the Internet Movie Database. (credit: Warner Bros.)

Cislunar cinema (part 2)

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The New Millennium Era

Here, a new generation starts to come to the fore and the tone of the stories changes again, this time to a greater sense of realism and accuracy in the portrayals of space life. Does it reflect the “Everything is Shiny; Rainbows & Unicorns!” programming that the Millennials have been getting? Or a deeper cultural shift to again be really interested in space travel and perhaps even development?

Planetes (2003–2005) is a Japanese anime/manga combo telling the story of a team of debris-removal specialists working in cislunar space. As they don’t generate revenues for their corporation they get half the support, half the equipment, and half the staffing, hence they’re known as Half Team. Their adventures take them from Low Earth Orbit to the Moon, and by the end of the series they are heading out to Jupiter. As is typical with Japanese works, it is something of a work of art, and is rich in layers of political and philosophical complexity. Difficult subjects are tackled, but also beautiful ones, and so experiencing the series delivers a strong feeling of intellectual satiation. Just fine for adults as well as the teens traditionally targeted. It’s a rich and engaging vision of the near future. Lunar Flying Squirrel Ninjas 4Eva! [IMDB: 8.3]

Race to Space (2004) is a family-friendly movie with good values about a rocket scientist’s son and his friendship with a chimpanzee being prepped for a space flight. When the boy uncovers sabotage he finds a new bond with his father as they battle the danger. [IMDB: 5.5]

Disaster! (2005) Think Armageddon meets Robot Chicken, with a dash of Jackass for good measure. Foul, profane, hysterically funny, and definitely not for children, this was when the “big rock from space” movies jumped the shark. [IMDB: 5.1]

Freedom (2006) is another anime tale, this time of a colony on the Moon that holds the last of humanity after ecological devastation on Earth. Those in control aren’t happy when the young hero discovers a package from Earth on the surface of the Moon. Will he risk everything for the freedom to pursue his destiny and meet the girl in the photo he found? [IMDB: 7.3]

Earthstorm (2006) has a giant impactor striking the Moon and destabilizing its structure, threatening to rip the Moon apart and rain debris on the Earth. Only a desperate mission by a demolitions expert can restore the Moon’s stability. [IMDB: 3.6]

Astronaut Farmer (2006) is a family-friendly tale of a Texas rancher who takes it upon himself to build a rocket in his barn to launch himself into orbit and achieve his dream of spaceflight. Fun and folksy, and with real-world parallels in the Americans in Orbit 50 project. [IMDB: 6.3]

Postcards from the Future (2007) tells the story of Sean Ever(y)man, an electrical engineer whose career spans the earliest days of Lunar development to the first voyage to Saturn. It offers a compelling vision of the future told through a series of video “postcards,” and featuring a reasonably portrayed developing Moon infrastructure. It premiered at the 2007 International Space Development Conference (which got it a write-up in Wired magazine) and is shown each year at Moon Day in Dallas. [IMDB: 7.6]

Rocket Girls (2007–2008) tells the story of the private sector company Solomon Space Agency and their efforts to establish a satellite repair and retrieval service. Because their rocket is slightly underpowered, they need small astronauts, and a trio of high school girls fits the bill. Works better than it sounds, and is notable for featuring the assistance of NASDA (a predecessor to JAXA) on the technical details. [IMDB: 8.0]

Moonlight Mile (2008) is another anime/manga entrant in the list, but one strictly for adult audiences. It features a very sophisticated story of two friends who have climbed the highest and hardest peaks on the Earth, and who set their sights on a far more ambitious goal – the Moon. As with Planetes, the story is rich in philosophical sophistication and international political intrigue. Only the first season of the anime was distributed in the US. The manga has been published in France, and is far better than the anime released to date, illustrating a compelling and formidable development of Lunar capabilities. [IMDB: 7.1]

Fly Me to the Moon (2008) is a CGI re-envisioning of the Apollo 11 journey to the Moon, this time from the perspective of some flies that hitch a ride and have the adventure of a lifetime. It’s definitely for the youngest viewers. [IMDB: 4.6]

Space Buddies (2009) tells the delightful tale of five young puppies who go on a space adventure when they accidentally stumble into a rocket test by a private company looking to send tourists to the Moon. It’s great fun for the kids. [IMDB: 4.3]

Lunopolis (2009) a strange tale best described as a plot by time-travelling Mormons on the Moon. At least there’s a Moon base. Or isn’t there? [IMDB: 6.7]

Impact (2009) has a large impactor striking the Moon, knocking it into an increasingly elliptical orbit that will eventually lead to a collision with Earth. Only a desperate mission to repel the hyperdense impactor from the interior of the Moon will allow the Moon to return to its normal orbit. [IMDB: 5.6]

Moon (2009) is a philosophical exploration of what it means to be human and who can lay claim to an identity, set on a Moon base where a sole technician gathers the helium-3 mined by massive crawlers and readies it for shipment to Earth. He’s about to go home after a three-year tour—or is he? [IMDB: 8.0]

Space Dogs (2010) is a CGI animated feature from Russia reimagining the tale of Belka and Strelka, two dogs who followed Laika into space. It takes great liberties with history, but is a fun tale for the kiddies. [IMDB: 5.3]

Lockout (2011) continues the theme of maximum-security prisons in space, although “Escape from LEO” might be a more appropriate title. The President’s daughter is on a humanitarian fact-finding mission to the orbital station, and of course things go wrong and the anti-hero protagonist (sorry, not Snake Plissken) has to rescue her from the hands of ne’er-do-wells. [IMDB: 6.1]

Love (2011) tells of an astronaut stranded on the ISS, and the human need for connection. It’s not too dissimilar from Astronaut: The Last Push in that regard. No effort is made to simulate weightlessness (except by camerawork), but the ISS set is quite nicely done. It’s found as part of the Angels & Airwaves “Love” Deluxe edition double CD. [IMDB: 5.6]

Quan Qiu Re Lian (Love in Space) (2011) is a Chinese rom-com (romantic comedy) addition to the list, featuring a vignette (amongst several) of an ex-couple on an orbiting space station who eventually travel to the Moon and plant a red flag (but not the one you think). Will love prevail? Duh! A gentle way to introduce non-space-movie-liking-women to the idea of movies set in space being okay. She does have to be cool with subtitles (or speak Mandarin Chinese), but it is a sweet and touching movie. [IMDB: 5.5]

Apollo 18 (2011) is a found-footage style movie telling of a secret Apollo mission that uncovers strange doings on the Moon, and explains why we’ve never been back. [IMDB: 5.2]

Iron Sky (2012) is a cheese-laden campy story of Nazis who escaped Earth at the end of World War II and have been building a super-weapon on the Moon to invade Earth. Featuring a Sarah Palin-esque president and innumerable tropes, the movie ends with the nations of Earth fighting over the helium-3 stockpiled on the Moon by the Nazis. [IMDB: 6.0]

Genesis 7: First Mission (2012) is, interestingly enough, an example of Christian fiction with a space theme. Young adventurers set out to explore the Solar System and are sent to the Moon to get some samples. It features the obligatory proselytizing, and some scientific boners. [IMDB: N/A]

Elysium (2013) presents another dystopian corporatist future, this time with the evil ultra-wealthy capitalists (but I repeat myself) having removed themselves to an orbiting utopia with parks and gardens and clean air and all of the things the ultra-wealthy deserve to have provided for them by everyone else, but no one else deserves (‘cause if they did, they wouldn’t be poor!). After a corporatist-inflicted radiation dose, our anti-hero sets out to change all that. [IMDB: 6.7]

Space Warriors (2013) is a modern day update to the film Space Camp, although in this case the students get to go to the space station when a crisis strikes. The movie’s agenda is to “inspire” a new generation of space explorers, and can be a bit heavy-handed in that regard. [IMDB: 4.3]

Stranded (2013) features a Moonbase that is struck by a meteorite shower. When investigating the impactors, they discover the reason there’s a reason there’s a panspermia hypothesis. [IMDB: 3.4]

Gravity (2013), recently released on DVD, has shown a remarkable durability at the box office for a space-themed film. An astronaut is trapped in orbit when a satellite test leads to an out-of-control Kessler effect that destroys the Shuttle and most everything else in LEO. [IMDB: 8.3]

An analysis

So that’s 87 cislunar-set space movies of adventures on the near frontier. There are a few others available for those who shop on the Internet, such as Uchuu Kyoudai (Space Brothers, 2011) from Japan, Cosmic Journey (1936) from Russia, A Trip to the Moon (1959) from Egypt, and Un Ticket Pour l’Espace (2006) from France, and with a little work we could probably get the total to 100.

So what cultural distinctions can we draw from this pool of cislunar-set movies and TV shows over the last 6+ decades? It’s helpful to remember the different generations and when they grew up:

Silent Gen: Born in the shadow of the Greatest Generation, these were the children of the Depression era and World War II. Too young to fight, they grew up in a world where the government was solving problems and doing great things for the country and the world. They’re the ones that made the average age at NASA 27 during the Apollo days.

Beginning in 1961, in the Space Age, the tone of the movies changed. Representations of space travel had something to base off of and became much more “realistic”, culminating in the artistry of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Baby Boomers: Beginning in 1946, annual births rose to more than four million per year, and continued above that mark until 1964. After the introduction of the Pill, birth rates started plummeting, exacerbated by the increasing availability of abortions (legal or not). Some folks mark 1961 as the end of the Boomer era, but the name really derives from the significant number of annual births that marked a bulge in the demographics of the country. The oldest Boomer was 23 when we landed on the Moon, the youngest only 5. They basically took over in the 1980s, and have been running things, along with the Silent Gen, ever since. Again, this was a generation that saw the government doing great things.

Generation X: In 1965, the birth rate fell below four million annual births, and continued dropping into the 1970s. The end of Gen X is variously set between 1978 and 1982. This much maligned generation grew up in the weird 1970s and was forged in the crucible of the yuppie 1980s and let-the-looting-begin Clinton 1990s, with Challenger being a keystone space moment. Apollo is something in the history books (the oldest X-er being only four years old at the time of the Moon landing, and most born after that date), and their earliest likely space memory is of Skylab falling out of the sky (or Challenger for the younger ones). Outnumbered nearly two-to-one by both the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, they’ve been largely excluded from the political process, and have been moving into middle management at a time when that function is disappearing. They’ve been hosed by contemporary history, and so are regarded as cynical and surly.

Millennials: Assuming that Generation X ended in 1982, this makes it very convenient for the Millennial generation to run from 1983 to 2000, and so round out the century and millennium. Always treated as special, from “Baby on Board” signs in cars to trophies for everyone, the Gen X latchkey kids could be considered feral in comparison to the highly structured lives of the Millennials. For them the space disaster was Columbia, and many have grown up hearing that we’re closing down NASA. Untrue, but the message is pervasive in our culture. The characters on The Big Bang Theory are front-end Millennials. If Gen X is hosed by history, the Millennials are royally screwed, and they’re slowly starting to wake up to that fact. They need to get the message that space exploration and development is a way for us to get back on the road to prosperity, and can help us address our environmental challenges. If we do in fact go back to the Moon and on to Mars in the first half of this century, these are the folks that are going to have to make it happen.

So with the general cultural background laid out, how do the movies fit in to that cultural framework? With the focus in this article on cislunar movies and TV, the comparisons are not entirely apt, as they ignore the other possible space settings in the solar system and beyond, which will be explored later. However, there are insights to be drawn from an analysis of the data.

Starting at 1950, in the Golden Age, the oldest Boomer would have been four years old, so much of the cinema of the 1950s could really be considered for the Silent Gen and Greatest Gen cohorts, especially as the decade progressed. Destination Moon introduced the concept of travel to Luna in a relatively serious context to the mass market, followed up three years later with the idea of a Moonbase, and even into 1955 with Wernher von Braun’s presentations in the Tomorrowland series (aimed squarely at the Boomers). However, Hollywood knew where the money lay, and so we have the erotic race to the bottom of Cat-Women of the Moon, its remake Missile to the Moon, and, in 1960, why even hide it: Nude on the Moon. When that came out, the oldest Baby Boomer was 14 years old (and may have been sneaking into the theatre). Internationally, many countries were trying their hand at space movies.

Beginning in 1961, in the Space Age, the tone of the movies changed. NASA was getting off the ground, and the Cold War was in full swing, with its appurtenant effect: spycraft. Representations of space travel had something to base off of and became much more “realistic”, culminating in the artistry of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first half of the decade saw a slew of spy movies and political farces, in a sense reflecting the geopolitical situation of space as a domain of competition between great powers, a situation which may be repeating (as does all history) with different players. In the latter half of the decade, the focus started swinging to exploration and greater fidelity in the portrayal of space life. 2001: A Space Odyssey remains the definitive film for most older folks (the increasingly common LSD at the time may have had a hand in that), and its stylings have an influence even today.

If there is a Golden Age of Cislunar cinema, it should really be considered the 1990s and 2000s.

The 1970s saw folks bored with the Moon, and looking increasingly farther afield for space entertainment, leading to a dearth of cislunar media in the 1970s and first half of the 1980s. The most influential was Space: 1999, which was interesting primarily because the Moon was headed into the deep unknown, not in orbit around Earth. By the end of the decade the Moon was fit only for mockery, with Salvage 1 portraying a junkyard owner with a magic formula for propellant travelling to the Moon to salvage the Apollo hardware to sell to the highest bidder, and Airplane II in the early 1980s featuring the Moon as the terminal (heh) destination for a shuttle flight of tourists.

Gen X saw the future in computers and embraced them whole-heartedly. Space couldn’t compete. By the mid-1980s Gen Xers were beginning to really be shaped by popular culture. With the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up in 1989, we see a slew of Moon-set movies and TV features clustered around that year. We get our first real example of cislunar anime from Japan (ex-Robotech), and some movie Moon bases, but the Moon is portrayed as a place of danger and probably some place we shouldn’t be.

If there is a Golden Age of Cislunar cinema, it should really be considered the 1990s and 2000s. There was a marked increase in content beginning in the mid-1990s that continues to this day, and the general level of storytelling is obviously increasing (even with all of the schlock of the 1990s). Cislunar space is becoming an increasingly interesting place in which to set stories again (on a global basis), and the general tone has become more positive (with exceptions). Anecdotally, the woman at the Chinese-language video store where I found Quan Qiu Re Lian (Love in Space), was thrilled that the movie Gravity featured a return to Earth in a Shenzhou.

What truly makes the present a Golden Age is the broad availability of these space movies to anyone who looks for them, a marked change from prior decades when a movie could go years between screenings, and often collected dust in the vaults until DVDs came to market. This makes the stories accessible to far more people than might have otherwise considered stories set in space. And with the Internet, Millennials can watch pretty much everything, even the most obscure titles. Thus, particular genres of interest (like spy films and spoofs) can be enjoyed while others (bad things on a space station) can be ignored. This also holds true for Solar System Cinema, which will be explored in the next article.

The broad acceptance of the movie Gravity may serve to bring even more cislunar movies to market, although as has been noted previously here, there can be read into some of the more recent entries an anti-human-space-exploration bias (see “Life in space is impossible”, The Space Review, May 19, 2014). There will always be those for whom the idea of human space exploration is too scary to contemplate, and therefore something that should countered, but unless they actually verbalize their existential dread (inchoate terror, fear of alien smackdown, contravening God’s will, alerting the machine intelligence, running away from ruined Earth, whatever), it’s hard to know how to overcome the objections, a key part of the selling process of the idea that space development can help us on Earth by providing access to energy and resources that we don’t have to tear up our own planet and ecosystem to get at. It’s unlikely we’ll be getting any of that kind of movie in the near future, unless of course that’s what consumers demand as evidenced by the spending of their consumer dollars.

Here are the top 5 cislunar space movies based on IMDB crowdratings:

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey [8.3] – hard to compete with this one.
  2. Planetes [8.3] – a well-told story
  3. Gravity [8.3] – Surprise! A space movie popular with the public!
  4. Voyage Dans La Lune [8.2] – again, amazing special effects for the time, and quite imaginative.
  5. Star Cops [8.2] – this one may be benefitting from its obscurity and dearth of reviewers.

And here are the author’s personal favorites having seen all of the 80+ titles in the list:

  1. Planetes – the combination of anime and manga is an amazing space treat well worth experiencing
  2. Space: 1999 – with Dad stationed at RAF Alconbury in the mid-70s, this was the sci-fi series I grew up with (and Dr. Who, and Blake’s 7, and…)
  3. Postcards from the Future – biased because I arranged a screening at the 2007 ISDC and at Moon Days, I do enjoy this movie because of the realistic, stepwise approach to exploring the Solar System. It has its flaws, with flat acting and a launch of the Mars ship from the Moon (NO! You launch from EML-1!), but the final scenes show that the director “gets it” when it comes to why we explore space.
  4. Moon Zero Two – the first Western on the Moon, because it reminds me so much of my Traveller adventures when I was younger.
  5. Space Buddies – because…Puppies! On the Moon! Awesome!

For those looking for a little statistical analysis, here are the mean, median and modes for the data:

Mean Median Mode
Movies 1988 1996 1967, 1996
IMDB 5.6 5.6 6.7
Golden Age ( –1960)
Movies 1948 1953 1953
IMDB 5 5.1 2.6
Space Age (1961–1972)
Movies 1966 1967 1967
IMDB 6 6.3 6.7
Post-Apollo Era (1973–1985)
Movies 1978 1979 1979
IMDB 6.2 6.7 n/a
Gen X Era (1986–2002)
Movies 1995 1996 1996
IMDB 5.0 5.0 3.8
Post-Millennium Era (2003– )
Movies 2009 2009 2009
IMDB 6 5.6 8.3