At the start of the film Iron Man (2008) you would be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a film set in the real world. As it went on it remained on the edge of reality with the only science fiction being the technological advances of Iron Mans suit. Later the same year The Incredible Hulk (2008) added more sci-fi and fantasy to the story as did Captain America: The First Avenger ( 2011), Thor (2011) and The Avengers ( 2012). Later this month will see the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, a film within the same fictional universe as the Marvel movies but set “In the far reaches of space”. This leads me to ask the question; have you ever noticed that is space set Sci-Fi movies we can never get too far from earth? When I say too far, I am talking I am not talking physical distance. With the exception of Star Wars (1977) most notable “space operas” tend to be set a few (or many) years from now and feature humanity exploring or colonizing other worlds. The other common plot involves returning to a Earth after some near apocalyptic event. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with films that are tied to earth, humanity and reality but the freedom that George Lucas gave himself and the makers of the new films by setting the first film “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” is immeasurable.
Serenity (2005) Set mainly in the outer worlds away from the Alliance government, it is basically the American west or frontier in the late 19th century, with the addition of space travel. The towns on many of the planets look intentionally like those from western movies. There are no alien life forms or creatures, everything has an old fashioned look to it. This is contrasted with the new and shiny cities on alliance planets. The film uses its settings and the idea of humans colonising the universe to its advantage in the plot of the film. I can’t remember any reference to Earth in the Firefly, the TV show that spawned the movie, but the film starts with the explanation of earth not being able to sustain us so new planets were found and terraformed. This comes back to bite humanity later as we learn what was created in the process. There is a nice symmetry about the way the story creates its own monsters “like the bogeyman from stories”, this gives an extra dimension and meaning to the plot. It makes the back story of the setting integral to the current plot but also grounds it somewhere near reality.
David Lynch’s Dune (1984), is a more complicated story, there is no reference to earth in the film, but there is in Frank Herbert’s source novels (a reference to Chaucer as I remember it). It is the film, after Star Wars that best creates a believable universe. There are planets with different ecosystems and inhabitants. The Spacing Guild acts as an antagonist in the story, with a monopoly on banking and interstellar travel, I have always suspected they were an inspiration for the Trade Federation in Star Wars. At the time of its release, it was hit with the duel criticism of not being faithful to the book at the same time as being unintelligible to anyone who hadn’t read the book. I have never understood this, I saw the film on its initial release when I was around ten years old, several years before I read the book and had no trouble following the plot. We only see a handful of the planets and the people who populate them, as the story is mainly set on the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune) rather than the rocketing around the galaxy. Dune is the centre of the universe because of the presence of Spice, the most valuable substance in the universe. Unlike the McGuffin Unobtainium (Avatar) Spice becomes central to the plot of the film.
Alien (1979)and its sequels are all about humans in space, despite the extraordinary alien creatures the film always has a sense of realism. There is always an unbalance between the working man and the plans of big business. There is always a desire to capture the alien to study and weaponise it, this is both a plot point and the bases for the movies subtext. The themes explored give it more in common with a Bruce Springsteen song or a John Steinbeck novel than with Star Wars. Most of the action in Alien takes place onboard a spaceship. Aliens (1986) relocates the action to the surface of the planet, that is undergoing terraforming leaving the action mainly in an industrial interior.
There is then sub genre of films about protecting the world from an alien invasion or attack. Notable among these are The Fifth Element (1997), Flash Gordon (1980), Starship Troopers (1997). Notable, not for how good they are, but because they leave the confines of earth and are set in part on alien planets. Of these only Flash Gordon does any notable “world building”, but this is largely inspired by earlier film, TV, and comic versions of the story. One of my most anticipated films of the year is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film that appears from the trailer to be a film about space exploration set in a near future of depleted resources. I’m sure there is more to it than that but the less I know going in the better.
I understand the reason for tethering a story to earth and humanity, and the emotional connection it gives an audience to the plot and characters, however I want to see something different. Films will always be filled with meaning, metaphor and subtext. A films social and political stance will always be grounded in the era its is from, but cutting the ties from earth and humanity as we know it could be the start to it. I’m not sure if there is a film other than Star Wars set in a totally fictional universe, but if there is I would like to see it. If there isn’t it’s about time someone made it. With a new Star Wars trilogy and at least two stand alone films I think they will have the market cornered, but my hope, and the real reason for this article, can they inspire future generations of film makers the way Star Wars inspired a generation in 1977?