Many years ago, I taught the first college-level astronomy course in the tiny West African nation of The Gambia. It was one of the best experiences of my life. My students were a joy to teach, and they asked many questions. They also taught me a lot about West African cultures and Islam.
One experience I’ll never forget was watching the movie E.T. The Extraterrestrial with my class. The Gambia is an impoverished country, and many of the students had never seen it. So, we watched it together. And they loved it.
Towards the end of the film, E.T. and his young earthling friends must escape government agents trying to capture the alien visitor. All seems lost as they approach a roadblock until their bikes suddenly begin to fly, carrying E.T. to his waiting spaceship. It’s a magical moment in cinematic history – and the entire class burst into spontaneous applause.
It’s not hard to understand why movies like E.T. have such enormous appeal. We humans have always been fascinated by the heavens, and our arts and entertainment reflect this. In fact, four of the ten highest-grossing films of all time have space themes: Avatar (2009), Star Wars (1977), E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982), and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
One of the first films ever made was Georges Méliès’ pioneering Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). In this 1902 silent movie, a group of astronomers travels to the Moon in a rocket fired from a giant cannon. Méliès was a gifted illusionist, and although the film’s special effects seem charmingly primitive by today’s standards, they were visionary at the time.
A few years later, Gaston Velle’s whimsical film, Voyage Autour d’une Etoile (Voyage Around a Star), featured an astronomer who falls in love with the stars. Eager to join them, he climbs inside a giant soap bubble and rises into the sky. But angry Jupiter soon sends him tumbling back to Earth, where he’s impaled on a building spire.
Countless other movies have also explored the human condition and our place in the universe.
Some take a dramatic approach. Gravity (2013), starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, used state-of-the-art visuals to tell a story of two astronauts marooned in space when their spacecraft was destroyed. In Melancholia (2011), writer/director Lars von Trier contemplated the end of days as a rogue planet collides with Earth. And there have been many others. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Interstellar (2014). The Martian (2015). Ad Astra (2019).
Other movies take a comedic look at the cosmos and our human foibles. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953). The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Men in Black (1997). The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Paul (2011). A few have been unintentionally funny. The 1957 cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space is often considered a contender for the worst movie ever made.
The popularity of cosmic-themed movies continues, with several scheduled for release in 2022. Among them:
- Moonfall is a tale of impending doom after the Moon is knocked out of its orbit by some mysterious force and hurtles towards Earth.
- In Distant, an asteroid miner must survive after crash-landing on an alien planet.
- Pixar’s Lightyear tells the origin story of Buzz Lightyear, the beloved Toy Story astronaut.
“Cinema is a mirror by which we often see ourselves,” said Oscar-winning film director Alejandro González Iñárritu. As our fondness for movies about space reveals, we see ourselves as children of the stars.
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Dr. Michael West is an Astronomer and Lowell Observatory’s Deputy Director for Science. His monthly column covers topics ranging from current science to stories of folklore and our connection to the stars. Please note that Dr. West’s stories expire at the end of each month.