So, Your Humble Blogger has gone to a few lectures at the University this semester. It’s interesting—I hardly ever think about going to lectures, and yet when my Best Reader and I do go, we largely enjoy ourselves at the lecture, and almost always enjoy ourselves afterward when we discuss it in detail. Perhaps I should go to more of them.
Anyway, the lecturer in this case was discussing a trend that she called Mourners from Outer Space—a trend of big-budget Hollywood movies where humans go out into outer space and grieve.
She was looking in detail at Interstellar and Gravity, but also mentioned The Martian, Arrival, Passengers, The Fountain, Moon and the remake of Solaris. That’s quite a few movies which evidently share substantial elements of (a) space travel and (2) grief. Evidently there is a good deal of specifically parental grieving—the only one of the mentioned movies YHB has seen is Moon, in which isolation, rather than grief, is the theme, although there is a sort of parental loss as well. What’s most interesting to me, honestly, is that these are a bunch of specfic movies involving outer space that I had little interest in seeing, and didn’t see. If the fundamental theme is parental grief, and the movie is largely focused on the acting of that grief, then I think I made good choices, there. I would not have enjoyed those films.
At any rate, whenever I hear an argument that indicates a trend in popular culture, or rather in a subset of popular culture I’m interested in, I respond primarily by looking for counter-examples. Not that counter-examples would indicate that the trend doesn’t exist, but enough counter-examples might indicate that (to take the current example) our culture right now doesn’t primarily think of Outer Space as a place to go and grieve for losses (or face inner demons, or work through isolation). And it turns out there are a lot of movies with substantial outer-space elements unaccounted for in the lecture.
In the last five years: Life, The Space Between Us, Rogue One/Force Awakens, Star Trek Darkness/Beyond, Jupiter Ascending, Space Station 76, Guardians of the Galaxy, Last Days on Mars, John Carter, Ender’s Game, Riddick, Stranded and Upside Down. In addition, there is dimensional travel to other planets in Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, and Thor and its associated movies, as well as the origin of the Man of Steel, although they aren’t really Outer Space movies within the meaning of the subgenre, not having spaceships or spacesuits. Still, that’s an awful lot of space-travel movies in five years, isn’t it? Something like four a year? And they are pretty much big-budget Hollywood movies, or biggish budget anyway, not indie pics. I had originally been thinking there weren’t very many, but, wow, yeesh, a ton. Of which I personally have watched, er, roughly, in general terms, four. Well, six, if you count Doctor Strange and Thor, which I don’t think I do, really.
So, I don’t go see movies much, anymore, which I knew and y’all probably guessed, and I don’t even see that many movies at home these days, either. And I think to some extent, that is exacerbated by the currently popular style of acting, where the camera focuses on a wordlessly grieving face for a very long time. That’s what people like and admire in acting, and I don’t deny that the actors seem to be good at it, but wow do I find it irritating.
So I see the Star Wars movies, which do have grieving-child moments but tend not to linger on them quite so much. The grieving-child bits were by far my least favorite bits of the Marvel movies as well—it was peculiarly out of place in Guardians, but at least it didn’t take up too much screen time. The others, well, I don’t bother seeing so much.
I suspect that the main theme motivating the filmmakers is isolation, rather than grief, or rather I suspect that the opportunity to write about isolation is what makes Outer Space a tempting location for a writer to set his or her exploration of grief or inner-demon-facing or whatever. It seems to me that isolation is probably a pretty fruitful theme for our internetty world over the last decade or so, and of course part of the point is that it is difficult to be isolated in a movie set in the present day (there are exceptions, of course) and that isolation is something that people find intriguing, scary or perturbing. The image of being (as in Gravity) adrift in a spacesuit is a powerful one these days. And then the filmmakers give the actors something to do of the kind people like to watch and give awards to, and there we are: mourners in space. Also also: giving your character a history of major loss that is as yet unredeemed and unconsoled is your basic cheap writer’s trick. I hate it.
I’m curious what Gentle Readers who actually watch movies think. It seems to me that there’s no lack of monster-fighting in space. Life, Star Wars, Jupiter Ascending, Guardians of the Galaxy, John Carter, and Riddick all have monsters, evidently, although I can’t actually remember any recent Star Wars baddies that are recognizably monstrous off the top of my head. Well, cyborgs are a kind of monster, I suppose, which means that there is something monstrous about all those machine-helmeted stormtroopers, but they aren’t monsters, I think, the way Jabba the Hutt was a monster. We’ve had at least a century of but man is the true monster specfic, though, to the point where it’s more of a cliché than a twist. In Star Wars and the others, the real monsters, human or alien (or both!) are doing real monster stuff, like trying to blow up the world. Or worlds. Or whole universes. Or gaining Ultimate Power and enslaving everyone else. In Gravity and Interstellar and such (so the lecturer convincingly said) the true monsters are time, solitude and the laws of physics.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,