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Review: The Spacesuit Film

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The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918–1969
by Gary Westfahl
McFarland, 2012
softcover, 371 pp. illus.
ISBN 978-0-7864-4267-6

Certain film genres have specific, iconic imagery associated with them. For a Western, it may be a cowboy, wearing a Stetson and with a six-shooter holstered to his belt, riding a horse into town. A spy thriller may feature an agent in a trench coat, skulking in the shadows. What is the equivalent for space-themed science fiction films? A rocket? A spacecraft? Or, as Gary Westfahl argues, a spacesuit?

“And though other images suggest the strangeness of space… spacesuits most comprehensively and powerfully indicate that humans are within a novel realm,” Westfahl writes in the introduction to The Spacesuit Film. He argues that films that make use of, or at least reference, spacesuits constitute their own genre of science fiction movies. To require film characters to wear spacesuits, even briefly, is to recognize the reality that space is a harsh environment unlike anything on Earth. Those filmmakers “will necessarily tell different kinds of stories about space travel than someone who is unaware of, or is indifferent to, the realities of this environment and the adjustments it demands,” he writes.

“What good is having Scarlett Johansson in your space movie if she’s stuffed into a rigid fabric balloon whose silhouette makes her indistinguishable from, say, Shia LaBeouf?”

This genre of films started in 1918 with the Danish film Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars), which Westfahl says is the first film where characters wore something akin to a spacesuit (in this case “bulky clothing” and masks that cover their faces), if only briefly. It wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s, though, that spacesuits became more common in film, part of the larger blossoming of science fiction films and the growing public interest in spaceflight. Westfahl identifies several films that pioneered the “spacesuit film” genre in the 1950s, such as Destination Moon and Conquest of Space, as well as the television series Men into Space, all of which attempted, with varying degrees of success, to rigorously describe a new future of human spaceflight in orbit, to the Moon, and elsewhere in the solar system. He sets these films apart from the much larger number of “pseudo-spacesuit films” from that era that include spacesuits, but as little more than a prop in a larger adventure, comic, or horror film. Those films range from classics like Forbidden Planet (included by Westfahl only because the characters briefly make reference to spacesuits, without actually wearing them) to Cat-Women of the Moon, which, well, yeah, not so much a classic.

One common thread in many of these movies—and clearly a source of frustration for Westfahl—is the use, and misuse, of spacesuits. In some cases spacesuits aren’t properly designed to protect the wearer from the space environment. Far more often, though, spacesuits are quickly taken off, as their wearers discover—quite conveniently—that the conditions on the Moon, Mars, or another world are hospitable enough that they do no require them. There is a rather practical, if decidedly nonscientific, reason for that. “Hollywood hates spacesuits,” author Michael Cassutt states in the book’s foreword. “What good is having Scarlett Johansson in your space movie if she’s stuffed into a rigid fabric balloon whose silhouette makes her indistinguishable from, say, Shia LaBeouf?”

The final chapter of The Spacesuit Film discusses some of the spacesuit films released after 1969, when Westfahl argues that the genre became far less popular as it was overshadowed by alternative visions of spaceflight. He singles out, with some disdain, Star Trek for providing the model of “successful, conventional melodrama transplanted into space with arguable scientific underpinnings” that became far more common, and popular, than the traditional spacesuit film. That approach concerns him. “Humanity today essentially faces two possible futures: We can either permanently remain on Earth, and permanently remain the same, or colonize space, and transform ourselves into inhabitants of space,” he writes. “Star Trek falsely argues that no choice need be made: We can conquer the universe, and we can also remain exactly the same as we are now.”

Westfahl suggests that science fiction filmmakers are not doing their duty to examine those futures, including those where humans are transformed to better survive alien environments, citing as one example Frederik Pohl’s novel Man-Plus. (One might make the case that Avatar was a step in that direction, but Westfahl doesn’t mention this contemporary—and financially very successful—film.) Whether or not that’s the duty of filmmakers, Westfahl provides a detailed study of this particular film genre, summarizing movies both famous and obscure, as well as, in a separate chapter, similar films made outside the US and Britain, from the Soviet Union to Japan. No doubt many of these movies inspired generations of viewers to pursue careers in spaceflight, including, perhaps, working with real spacesuits.