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There are three trailers that have hit, basically back to back, for astronaut shows or movies. Let’s talk about what they tell us about the current state of near-future, near space science fiction. Full disclosure, this is a field I’m pretty invested in right now, for just over 65,000 reasons, and it’s one I’ve been fond of all my life. Which is why Lego is going to get even more of my money this year.
What I find most immediately attention grabbing here is that the past is a safe place. For All Mankind basks in the romantic after-glow of the Apollo program even as it posits a world where it came in second. It’s an immensely savvy move, taking the ultimate American engineering achievement and doing the only thing that makes it even more of an underdog; having it lose. That leads to the subversive, fun elements we glimpse there. I’m pretty certain those female astronauts will turn out to be some variant of the Mercury 13. I’m also pretty sure we see a glimpse of Major Robert Lawrence. The space program, always a stalking horse for America’s self image, re-imagined through adversity as something better. It’s an incredibly compelling idea and a surprisingly easy sell given it’s alternate history based around something still in living memory. Plus it does look fun as Hell.
Then we get to Ad Astra and things, somehow, got both weirder and duller. Like I said further up, this looks for all the world like Heart of Darkness in space and while that’s fun (Lunar rover chases?!) it’s also apparently got an emotional core that seems like the lowest of low hanging fruit. It’s early days and there’s clearly lots to come but right now, it looks a lot like ‘Handsome, brave, amazing astronaut risks all to save solar system from improbably evil father’. Which, when the improbably evil father has a lighstaber is fine. When it looks worryingly like he’s got in the eyeliner, done a bad job of it and watched Blown Away on repeat there’s cause for concern, Here we go again, as Whitesnake once sort of put it. Going down the only road male characters in movies ever seem to get, as they didn’t once put it at all.
That brings us to Lucy in the Sky. Loosely based on a true story and the directorial debut of Noah Hawley, who does not know how to frame an image badly, it looks amazing. It also looks to tackle, head on, the issue every astronaut has faced to some extent; what happens when the mission is over. This has been an issue as long as we’ve sent people into space, with the sheer profundity of the experience defining the lives of those that go. When astronauts were test pilots, it was especially difficult because when you’ve reached the top of the pyramid, what do you do? What happens when you have nothing more to win? I’m honestly really excited to see this idea explored, and especially explored through a female lens. I’m willing to bet you’ll be able to put this and Interstellar side by side and see some fascinatingly different perspectives on certain beats.
And yet, it is also a movie about a woman being too emotional to deal with space.
Each one of these projects looks brilliant. Each one of these projects has a downside. For All Mankind could so easily slip into jingoistic fan fiction. Ad Astra could have an utterly pat emotional core. Lucy in the Sky could just be about a woman who fell apart under the strain of her job. I doubt, and hope, that’s the case but I feel like when you view them all like this it shows us their strengths and weaknesses as well as giving us a read on the current state of this sub-genre. From where I’m sitting, it’s good news. That near future, near space SF is evolving, trying new things (And old things in new wrappers) and moving towards something very different. After all, books have already got there so it’s about time TV and movies caught up.