Hollywood loves adventure, and most of all it loves a spectacle. So it is no surprise that space travel reached the big screen years before any actual rockets reached outer space. And for nearly as long as sci-fi films have been showing outer space, people have been arguing about realism — or lack of realism — in space travel movies.
Countdown to Thrills
An early win for realism in cinematic space travel, as Atlas Obscura recounts, was the 1929 Fritz Lang film “Frau im Mond,” or “Woman in the Moon.” The moon rocket in the film had multiple stages, each one dropping away in turn after providing its share of the enormous speed needed to reach the moon — just as the Saturn V did, three decades later. It also helped that rocketry pioneer Hermann Oberth served as technical advisor.
“Frau im Mond“ did not just predict realistic space travel — it even helped create it. To build up drama for the rocket launch, Lang introduced the countdown, counting backwards to the moment of launch. Real-life space launches have used countdowns ever since.
Realism vs the Frontier
Over the years, realism in sci-fi films has struggled against multiple challenges. When you are aiming for spectacle, budgets are always a concern. And on the frontiers of science and technology, even scientists can’t be quite sure what is realistic versus what isn’t.
In the film “Interstellar,“ explorers reach a planet orbiting just above a black hole, a celestial object so massive that even light cannot escape it. Phil Plait of the highly regarded Bad Astronomy blog at Slate took the filmmakers to task for an impossible scenario. He had to graciously retract this particular criticism because, as it turns out, a spinning black hole would indeed allow for a nearby planet.
On the speculative frontier, it seems, realism is a moving target.
Hanging on for Dear Life
Even more fundamentally, space travel movies (except documentaries) are first and foremost about telling a story, and doing so in a vivid and convincing way. Space scenes don’t really need to be accurate, because space travel experts make up only a tiny fraction of the audience. But they need to look convincing.
The storytelling challenges this can pose are reflected in “Gravity,” a movie that received generally high marks for realism. The story involves an accidental space collision and its aftermath, set in Earth orbit and in the near future. Unlike in “Interstellar,” the science and technology in “Gravity” are not highly speculative.
Still, as the Washington Post reported, “Gravity” gets space travel both right and wrong. One challenge is the sheer speed of space travel: a speeding bullet is slow by space standards. A collision between spacecraft in different orbits would happen so fast that if you blinked, you would miss it — literally — which is far too fast for proper dramatic effect.
Other scenes in the film bend the rules, so to speak. In principle, you could indeed use a space suit backpack rocket to go from one orbit to another; in practice, however, this would require more propellant than the backpacks are built to carry. Likewise, using a fire extinguisher as an impromptu rocket is possible in principle. But the balancing act that would be necessary to avoid going into a useless spinning spiral would be nearly impossible to carry off.
Finally — and just as with “Interstellar” — even experts disagree about the climactic scene in “Gravity.” When George Clooney lets go of Sandra Bullock and falls to his death, is the scene correct about what would happen in orbit, or does it cheat by playing off of our earthly expectations about people holding on while suspended over a void? It can be argued both ways, as the Washington Post made clear.
As space travel becomes a more familiar part of life, the standards of realism in movies and television will shift. (The rocket in “Frau im Mond” does not look especially realistic after nearly 60 years of real space rockets, but it was awesome in 1929.) But the challenge of trying to get it right — while, even more importantly, making it feel right — will continue to test the imagination and ingenuity of film and TV producers.