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Second Take: Recent space films shouldn’t lose sight of human emotion

(April Ding/Daily Bruin)

By Alexandra Kukoff

November 9, 2016 7:22 pm

Cinema recently revived its search for success across the final frontier.

In the next two months, an influx of movies either in or about outer space will be released, including the military-thriller “Arrival,” the Christmas-slated melodrama “Passengers” and the teen romance “The Space Between Us,” in which a boy from Mars falls in love with his Earth-bound pen-pal.

While recent space films such as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” (2013), Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (2014) and Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” (2015) have managed to infuse the science fiction genre with emotional appeal, 2016’s slate of space movies could be sucked into a black hole of trite narratives. If the upcoming films manage to ground themselves in genuine human sentiment, then they can elevate themselves to critical, commercial and communal success, a trifecta usually uncommon in films in galaxies far, far away.

[Related: Second Take: ‘Game of Thrones’ diverges plotlines from original books]

UCLA Theater, Film and Television lecturer Jonathan Kuntz thinks it is precisely this human appeal which has caused the space movies of the early 2010s like “Interstellar” and “The Martian” to resonate with critics and audiences alike.

“Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan are taking everything seriously,” Kuntz said. “They’re balancing the human, personal stories against the larger canvas of things, and engaging with ideas to come up with the most original, best stuff they can possibly have.”

If the movies don’t follow the sentimental path of “Gravity,” they could fall into the trap of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” in which character Sam Worthington sheds his paraplegic human body for that of a lithe, blue alien on a distant planet. The film is visually spectacular, but the romance between Jake Sully (Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) is yet another example of characters abandoning their awkwardness for appropriation and a bit of romance. The romantic tension of “Arrival,” in which Amy Adams’ character pursues romance with a patronizing physicist (Jeremy Renner) who belittles her ideas while inadvertently exploiting them, threatens to fall into this trap.

[Related: Second Take: ‘The Dark Knight’ to return for series’ fourth installment]

To better the quality of the outpour of space movies, moviemakers can learn from the directors who have received accolades for adventure films in years past.

The drama of “Gravity” comes not from Sandra Bullock spinning around frantically for 90 minutes, but from her desire to tether herself to her daughter and family on Earth – a familial dedication that, in Amy Adams’ role in “Arrival,” feels implemented solely to gain feminine approval and ticket money.

The mystery of “Interstellar” is spurred on not simply by the doom of an abstract civilization and the two-dimensional passengers who abandon it but also by the brilliant, surprisingly legitimate scientific pursuit of Jessica Chastain. If “Passengers” fails to incorporate this same level of urgency, audiences will lose steam right along with Chris Pratt’s ship in the upcoming film.

And the triumph of “The Martian” comes not from two underdeveloped teens’ hackneyed road trip across Earth, but from the unencumbered perseverance of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut who, abandoned on Mars in a survey mission gone wrong, is less concerned with finding his father than he is with staying alive.

The appeal of the 2014 films comes not from their “wow” factor, but from the emotional, human appeal within, from families reuniting to the human spirit triumphing. The 2016 movies contain promise – “Arrival” does, at least – but whether or not they can deliver this genuine sentiment remains to be seen.

“It’s about the story of how human beings are reacting to these grandiose, cosmic events,” Kuntz said.

It’s not the worlds beyond, but the emotions behind them.

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Alexandra Kukoff
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