Gravity arrives in theaters this weekend, and we here at Grantland are all hyped up on space, despite what appears to be director Alfonso Cuarón’s best efforts to make it look like a losing proposition. Here are our favorite moments from every corner of the Milky Way … and beyond.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Alex Pappademas: Star Trek: The Motion Picture developed over the course of many years and countless false starts. By the time it was released in 1979, George Lucas had transformed what audiences expected from sci-fi, and it was clear that Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise had bet the wrong horse by aping the high seriousness of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey instead of the Sunday-serial zip of Star Wars. After this, the Star Trek film franchise would become a series of movies about people — humans and humanoids, learning to live and love, bickering and grieving, pulling their surrogate family back together despite the odds, and saving the occasional whale. ST: TMP is the only Star Trek movie that’s really about space, in all its cold and incalculable vastness, and the cold, incalculably vast alien intelligences that might dwell there.
There’s a massive cloud-brain slash spacecraft slash petulant child-god called V’Ger bearing down on Earth, demanding the answers to philosophical questions like “Is this all that I am?” It’s a movie about a big, confused machine that is itself a big, confused machine. No other Star Trek movie features this many long shots inviting us to ponder the somber majesty of manmade objects slowly rotating in zero gravity. No other Star Trek movie features this many moments in which William Shatner (not yet in on the joke of himself, playing Kirk like he’s playing an actual historical personage in a biopic, like he’s playing President Kirk) pauses to just kind of look at stuff — the cargo bay, some dilithium crystals, a particularly interesting corridor.
But no other Star Trek movie has this one’s chilly grandeur, either. V’Ger, a spaceship as wide as Earth’s orbit, turns out to be less of an antagonist and more of a stand-in for the final frontier itself, in all its forbidding beauty. In the flyover sequence above, nobody says anything except the things they always say — “reverse angle on the viewer, Captain!” — but Douglas Trumbull’s effects and Jerry Goldsmith’s score create a real sense of wonder and terror. You’re watching Kirk and Sulu and Uhura and the gang being forced to confront their own insignificance against the backdrop of an unforgiving cosmos in a way they never have before.
Carl Sagan, “You Are Here (Pale Blue Dot)”
netw3rk: Remember that bit from Annie Hall, when a young Alvy tells Dr. Flicker that he’s depressed because the universe is expanding, to which Alvy’s mother replies, “Why is that your business?”
In February of 1990, the spacecraft Voyager 1 sat perched at the outer edge of the solar system, its mission to study Jupiter and Saturn completed. As a final act before leaving the solar system, NASA had the probe turn around, toward the planets, and take some pictures. In one of those pictures was a tiny pale blue dot, the image of Earth. Inspired by that picture, astronomer and philosopher Carl Sagan wrote the words in the above video, which — while not necessarily your business — isn’t the worst way you could spend five minutes today.
Zach Dionne: I was 10 when Contact came out. I didn’t know what was happening at first, but I was psyched to be at a movie that was opening with a snippet of the Spice Girls. Then I was flying through the solar system, along with the camera, hearing older and older music as I went. It was probably about the time a newscaster’s crackly voice said “a sniper has fired at President Kennedy” that my dad leaned over to whisper that these were Earth’s radio waves, emanating through space. I was awed; such a neat, science-y premise, and it just looked — and still looks, 16 years later — so gorgeous. Then to go past the solar system, drifting among the nebulae and the stars and the colorful space-cloud thingies, to wind up in a hushed frontier, unexplored by humankind, unsullied by “Wannabe”? Tremendous.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Tess Lynch: As a great man/woman named ChinatownWieners once said, “Who disliked this… WHO THE FUCK DISLIKED THIS!?”
Reading Rainbow, “Space Case”
[Ed. note: Looks like our friends at Vimeo don’t want to let you watch this episode on Grantland, but you can watch it here (and we highly recommend that you do.)]
Holly Anderson: The 1986 outer space–themed episode of Reading Rainbow has just about everything a kid sleeping in a rocket bed could want, and is as jam-packed with treats as a plastic pumpkin on October 31. You’ve got LeVar Burton hanging out in the Lick Observatory, Michael Winslow and all attendant weird noises reading Edward Marshall’s book Space Case, Star Wars cantina footage, and a trip to Puerto Rico for a visit to the Arecibo Observatory. Space Case, concerning the adventures of a small, sentient flying saucer that wanders down to Earth, begins thus:
It came from outer space.
To have a look around.
And to meet the natives.
Who were not especially friendly.
[Picture of indifferent cow and grumpy chicken.]
It turns out it’s Halloween on Earth, and The Thing falls in with a band of trick-or-treaters, ending up accompanying one, Buddy, home from the night’s festivities. It proceeds to do adorable things like lower its antennae for sleep, atomize a glass of orange juice, and rescue Buddy from a forgotten homework assignment. Despite being referred to as The Thing throughout, the book also slips in a sneaky lesson on acceptance of the unknown. The Thing, after studying a dictionary to better communicate with Buddy: “The location of my origin is in outer space.” Buddy: “Yeah, I thought so.” And then The Thing bails on this whole Earth deal when it finds out trick-or-treating is not an everyday activity … but promises to come back for Christmas.
The rest of the episode focuses on the sights and sounds of outer space, and in between observing star clusters on a telescope, learning what a pulsar is, and getting an up-close look at the lightweight panels that make up the radio dish in Arecibo, that lesson on mankind’s approach to and acceptance of the unknown is repeated. The book is presented as “one person’s idea of what outer space might look like.” Open-ended questions are posed through the fourth wall of what might happen if life from other planets makes contact with humanity. This is a show for little kids, and Burton is asking a Lick Observatory worker not “Do you believe in aliens?” but “Do you think we’ll ever know?” It’s an early and essential lesson in asking the important questions, and being comfortable, even excited when the answers aren’t immediately apparent.
The Black Hole: Space Sequence Tribute
Mark Lisanti: If you require background on Disney’s 1979 sci-fi epic The Black Hole, watch this. (That’s some really dark stuff for Mickey, right? He was going through a thing.)
But otherwise: Close all your other tabs.
Just enjoy space.
Andy Greenwald: It’s very possible that SpaceCamp is a terrible movie. The reviews were dreadful, the budget rinky-dink, and, though it features early work by Lea Thompson, Tate Donovan, and Joaquin (né “Leaf”) Phoenix, the strongest performance may well have been given by a sentient robot named Jinx. But I don’t care. I saw this in the theater as a 9-year-old and it was basically the greatest thing ever. It made all sorts of wild fantasies seem strangely possible: experiencing zero gravity, dating Kelly Preston, having a halfway decent time in Alabama. It probably didn’t play quite the same way to cynical adults, but arriving as it did a few months after the Challenger disaster, SpaceCamp restored a sense of wonder to NASA and a sense of hope to a country of elementary school kids who had been promised jet-packs but were instead awash in tragedy and disappointment. (Those last two words are, I’m learning, also a good way to describe SpaceCamp’s box office. Leave my childhood alone, you vultures!)
Chris Hadfield Drops the Puck From Space
Sean McIndoe: International Space Station astronaut (and social media superstar) Chris Hadfield is a diehard Leaf fan, so it was a nice touch when he was asked to drop the puck for the ceremonial faceoff at Toronto’s home opener this January. Well, not so much “drop” it, since he was in space. More like “kind of shove it downward,” but we’ll consider that close enough.
That was followed by a weirdly long skit involving several former Maple Leaf greats and also Darcy Tucker. If you don’t follow the Leafs, it won’t make any sense. Don’t worry, Toronto fans didn’t really get it either.
Fun fact: Hadfield’s eventual return home on May 13 coincided with the Leafs’ infamous Game 7 disaster against the Bruins. If you think it’s tough to watch your team come crashing back to earth, imagine doing it while you are literally crashing back to Earth.
The Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”
Katie Baker: My favorite piece of trivia from the Wikipedia page about the award-winning and spacetastic Smashing Pumpkins video for “Tonight, Tonight” is the detail that they had trouble procuring costumes because James Cameron had “rented nearly every turn-of-the-century prop and costume in the city” for Titanic. Unlisted in the article, however, is the scientific fact that 97 percent of the people who view this video find themselves saying some variation of “remember when the M in MTV stood for the music, man?” (P.S.: This song was also used in one of my favorite hockey montages of all time, so might as well shoehorn that in.)
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “It Came Out of the Sky”
Charles P. Pierce: By the time Willie and the Poor Boys had been released, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival had staked himself as one of the finest songwriters in rock and roll. (With “Fortunate Son” and “Don’t Look Now” elsewhere on the album, Fogerty could claim to have written two of the best — and certainly two of the most clear-eyed — rock songs of the Vietnam era. David Crosby would have sold a kidney to have written “Fortunate Son.”) Here, though, announcing itself with a glorious burst of Duane Eddy twang, Fogerty runs a hilarious tale of a farm boy whose close encounter eventually makes him a fortune. (“Jody said it’s mine, but you can have it for $17 million.”) It has a cast of characters that would have done Willie Dixon’s wang-dang-doodle proud; Walter (Cronkite) and Eric (Sevareid), Ronnie (Reagan?) the Popular, Spiro, Hollywood, and the Vatican all make appearances. It’s funny as hell, as funny as anything Bob Dylan ever wrote, including “Desolation Row.” And, not for nothing, but the music will kick your ass all the way past the Van Allen Belt; listen to Doug Clifford hit the crash cymbals on the final chorus. This will make you run all the way to town screaming, “It came out of the sky!” Really, it will.
Megan Creydt: More than 200,000 people signed up for a one-way trip to Mars? I’ll stay right here, thanks.
The Simpsons, “Deep Space Homer”
Jay Caspian Kang: They already made Gravity, in cartoon form. It was called “Deep Space Homer” and it was one of the five best Simpsons episodes of all time. (I SAID IT.) Hail Ants.
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Emily Yoshida: Seeing as Gravity, at least from what we can see in the trailers, focuses on the part of space immediately hugging our planet’s atmosphere, I thought this documentary short by the art/science/philosophy group The Planetary Collective seemed apropos. It’s called Overview, and it attempts to describe and convey the phenomenon of the same name that has been used to describe the psychological and spiritual effect of seeing the Earth from space. I don’t know, because despite my best efforts I’ve never been outside the troposphere, but I have a feeling that the horror-space of Gravity and the wonder-space of Sagan and Star Trek and now this short may just be two sides of the same coin, at least judging by the enlightened awe of those astronauts. But if you’re like me and you’re still saving up for your Virgin Galactic ticket, turning down the lights and watching this on full-screen might be the next best thing.