I caught Interstellar over the weekend and was mesmerized for the entire three hour runtime. Coop the astronaut/farmer falls goes exploring and falls down a series of rabbit holes that take him far from home. It’s a movie that celebrates exploration and continually triggered my sense of wonder if only because none of the protagonists are fearless action heroes but all too human in their desires to return home safely and be re-united with families and loved ones. I don’t want to say too much about the plot not because of all of the twists and turns but I think the movie is best appreciated by not knowing how it’s going to turn out.
It reminded me of two other movies about interstellar travel: Contact (1997) and 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968). They are very different films, but both are about exploration and transcending the limits of our current horizon. All three of these films are concerned as much with the survival of humanity as the personal journey of an astronaut across the galaxy.
I was trying to think of other movies that made me look up from the day to day, clearing the cobwebs of my daily concerns and I came up with two other science fiction / fantasy movies:
- The Matrix (1999) I hadn’t read much about the premise of the film when I saw it and it was a completely absorbing mystery: the first half trying to figure out what was going on and the second half completely unsure where the story would go next.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) I wasn’t sure what to expect, I had not read the books. Rowling had crafted a fully worked out system of magic that was part fairy tale and part a real depiction of evil at work in the world that led me to see the movie twice in the same day.
After I had slept on it I realized that there were two others I had found captivating that are based on the real events of our first steps into space:
- The Right Stuff (1983) Watching one of the early scenes that shows Chuck Yeager on fair and bailing out of a plane more than 10 miles off the ground and realizing in the back of my mind that this had actually happened and he had lived–and was still alive–put so many “action movie” scenes to shame.
- Apollo 13 (1995) There are two fantastic scenes in this movie, one about what it means to be an engineer, and one a pilot. The first is when they dump a duplicate set of all of the miscellaneous material in the capsule onto a table and tell the engineering team they don’t but they have to figure out how to build an assembly that will fit a square peg in a round hole and then radio the instructions verbally to the astronauts. The second is an interview that’s shown in passing:
Television Reporter: Is there a specific instance in an airplane emergency when you can recall fear?
Jim Lovell: Uh well, I’ll tell ya, I remember this one time – I’m in a Banshee at night in combat conditions, so there’s no running lights on the carrier. It was the Shrangri-La, and we were in the Sea of Japan and my radar had jammed, and my homing signal was gone… because somebody in Japan was actually using the same frequency. And so it was – it was leading me away from where I was supposed to be. And I’m lookin’ down at a big, black ocean, so I flip on my map light, and then suddenly: zap. Everything shorts out right there in my cockpit. All my instruments are gone. My lights are gone. And I can’t even tell now what my altitude is. I know I’m running out of fuel, so I’m thinking about ditching in the ocean. And I, I look down there, and then in the darkness there’s this uh, there’s this green trail. It’s like a long carpet that’s just laid out right beneath me. And it was the algae, right? It was that phosphorescent stuff that gets churned up in the wake of a big ship. And it was – it was – it was leading me home. You know? If my cockpit lights hadn’t shorted out, there’s no way I’d ever been able to see that. So uh, you, uh, never know… what… what events are to transpire to get you home.
If you haven’t seen it already I would catch Interstellar in the theaters over the holidays and if that doesn’t do enough to renew your sense of wonder I would rent one or more of these other films.
“The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine.”
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A team of engineers crowd around a large table that has a copy of all of the material available in the capsule. They need to find a way to adapt carbon dioxide filters from the Command Module for use on the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) where the crew has taken refuge after an accident has disabled the Command Module. Gesturing first with a squat square filter and a longer thinner cylindrical filter, the lead engineer says, “OK people, listen up. The people upstairs have handed us this one and we gotta come through. We gotta find a way to make this fit into the hole for this, using nothing but that.”
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