Jan 4, 2017

An Appreciation Piece About NASA on Film

Scene from Hidden Figures
Here's a quick test. When you think about movies that take place in outer space, what genre do you think of? The odds are that sci-fi comes immediately to mind. It's with good reasoning too, especially since travelling to distant galaxies and fighting aliens is a subject that never gets dull. However, there's one thing that does seem disappointing: the lack of recognition films about NASA are likely to get. In spite of our fascination with galaxies far, far away; cinema seems predicated on not relaying a simple truth. This world has made some advancement to getting out there, making our journey to them not so far away. With this weekend's release of Hidden Figures, it seems like once again audiences will have to be convinced that space travel isn't a fictional concept, but one of reality. 
There is one simple truth: space exploration is one of the greatest achievements in human existence during the 20th century. If judged solely on doing something no generation had before, it's an awe inspiring feat that showed the potential of mankind. It was always a dream to reach for the stars and discover what all lied out there. It's been so ingrained in our consciousness that one of cinema's earliest masterpieces, director Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon, only helped to deepen the fascination for life on other planets - or in his case the moon. Even then, to know that getting there was possible only makes the work that NASA has done all the more impressive. 
So why take NASA for granted close to 60 years after man first escaped orbit? True, scientists like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson have kept science culturally relevant, but there isn't a unified interest as there had once been. Even with phenomenal work done in the past year that furthers our understanding of the universe, general audiences are still keen to watch the latest Star Wars film with awe, never caring about the few realities that intersect with their everyday lives. It could be that history lessons are a bit boring on film, as is the case with music biopics being less interesting in comparison to musicals. However, there's something fascinating about literally reaching for the stars.
It goes beyond the unfathomable reality that it provides. NASA's goals create a dream on par with the Olympics. It's a time when it doesn't become about county or local groups. It's about the country as a whole working together, even in just patriotism, to excel. There is a pride in being a nation that excels above the rest. It's created the space race as well as other activities. It has even turned the men willing to risk their lives for exploration into icons. They are the brave men who are willing to go literally above and beyond to make a difference.
This can best be seen in The Right Stuff, where the original group featuring the recently deceased John Glenn trained for NASA to escape Earth's orbit for the first time. While the camera spends limited time adoring the beautiful view of outer space, the build-up is intense and intricate in ways that make you understand why this is a big deal. They're turned into heroes because of the uncertain; in part because of failed rocket tests. The film manages to humanize each character by adding humor and small character moments that make these men feel real. It's a testament to their patience and bravery as well as NASA's willingness to keep dreaming. In fact, it can be seen as the dream that came true.
Later films have explored other missions in detail, including Best Picture nominee Apollo 13. There is a thrill to being outside of the Earth's comfort zone. To float around and discover a literal weightlessness is an amazing feat that most of us will never know. These films make a difference in creating a pride in NASA. They are both cutting edge with their special effects as well as being true stories that are almost better than the sci-fi that coincides with it. Even the fact that they're based on true stories makes it more impressive, especially in cases like Apollo 13 where there's a famous crisis that threatens everyone's lives. Even in fictional stories that have a certain realism like The Martian, there's a certain pride in work and society that reminds us that we're all working together for a common goal. To see it happen, despite an infinite ratio of potential disappointment, is a feat like no other.
I'm unsure as of this moment how Hidden Figures will fit into the equation. However, it looks to add a new element in the Civil Rights incorporation; which has largely been ignored by other films. It's a film relevant to an era where cinema has openly welcomed non-white male stories with more frequency. It may just be a feel good story about empowerment, but it does stand potential to also remind people to dream for a vision of working together for change. NASA may have less popular films than your Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, but hopefully the realization that some of their fiction isn't so false anymore should fill us with some hope. The world is advancing, both technically and socially. It only seems right that our films reflect this.

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