Skywalkin’ – Top 10 Movie Astronauts

As published in Issue #58 of F*** Magazine

Top 10 Movie Astronauts
By Jedd Jong
This month, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway will embark on a voyage to infinity and beyond in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar. One of the stock answers to the question “so, what do you want to be when you grow up?” has, for a long time, been “astronaut”. The depiction of brave men and women breaking past the confines of our planet certainly has a role to play in upholding the glamour, mystique, adventure and yes, danger of becoming an astronaut. Hop aboard the lunar lander, the orbiter or, if it comes to that, the escape pod as F*** takes a look at ten such characters, including a couple based directly on real-life astronauts.

A good while before the Expendables blasted their way onto movie screens, Clint Eastwood brought us a troupe of badass grandpas in Space Cowboys. Directed by Eastwood and also starring Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and the late James Garner, Space Cowboys tells of a group of former U.S. Air Force test pilots who were unceremoniously denied their chance to go into space. Over 40 years later, Frank Corvin (Eastwood) and his pals finally get a shot at fulfilling their astronaut ambitions when they turn out to be the only ones capable of repairing an outdated Soviet satellite carrying a deadly payload and in danger of crashing into earth. Something of an archetypical Eastwood character, Corvin is tough, heroic and looks out for his friends but has an anti-authoritarian streak. The Frank Corvin character was 69 years old, the same age Eastwood was at the time of filming. Eastwood jokingly nicknamed the film “Geezer Power” and while he pilots helicopters in real life, he’s never really wanted to go into space, saying in an interview “to me, that’s claustrophobic as hell”.

In this highly-acclaimed low-budget sci-fi flick, the directorial debut of Duncan Jones, we see “astronaut” treated as more of a blue-collar type job than one of exciting exploration. It is 2035 and Lunar Industries has tapped into the energy market by mining the fuel alternative helium-3 from the surface of the moon. The operations of the mining facility Sarang are managed by lone astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell), nearing the completion of his three year contract as the only human being on the Sarang, with just the artificial intelligence GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company. Sam uncovers a troubling conspiracy and aims to expose the corporation’s questionable practices. Of being the only actor physically onscreen throughout the whole movie, Rockwell said “it was a daunting acting challenge; it was a very, very intimidating idea. So it took a while to get my head around it.” Jones and co-writer Nathan Parker wrote the film specifically for Rockwell and many believed that the actor was snubbed when he was not a Best Actor nominee at that year’s Oscars.

Based on Stanisław Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel of the same name, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris is considered by film scholars to be one of the most important sci-fi movies ever made. It had earlier been adapted as a TV film in 1968, but this is the version that made a mark. Like many of the best science fiction films, Solaris used its fantastical setting as a backdrop for the exploration of complex, intimate psychological issues. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Banionis) is sent to a space station orbiting the remote oceanic planet Solaris to perform an evaluation. The scientific mission based aboard the space station has stalled; the three astronauts each suffering emotionally. Upon arriving on the space station, none of the crew members cooperate with or even greet Kelvin. Kelvin later encounters a most mysterious occurrence: the reappearance of his deceased wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who had committed suicide some years ago. Is this a hallucination or something more sinister? The uniqueness of Solaris and of its treatment of Kris Kelvin’s predicament can be attributed to Tarkovsky’s attitude going in. “I don’t like science fiction, or rather the genre SF is based on,” he said flatly. “All those games with technology, various futurological tricks and inventions which are always somehow artificial. But I’m interested in problems I can extract from fantasy. Man and his problems, his world, his anxieties. Ordinary life is also full of the fantastic. Life itself is a fantastic phenomenon.” The 2002 remake of Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney as Chris Kelvin, proved divisive.

 “SPACESHIP! Spaceship spaceship spaceship spaceship SPACESHIP!” Sure, it’s no “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, but perhaps Benny the 1980-something Space Guy’s limited vocabulary is part of his charm. In The LEGO Movie, Benny’s obsession with spaceships rivals that of Cookie Monster’s obsession with cookies. However, this single-mindedness also brings with it unendingly cheerful optimism. The character of Benny is one of the biggest ways in which the film’s directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller showcase their geeky love for LEGO. The blue spaceman LEGO minifigure was first released in the 1984 set “Space Dart” (set #6824). The Classic Space line of LEGO sets is beloved among collectors and the many kids who grew up with the building toys during that era. Authentic details, such as the faded Classic Space logo, the bite marks and the exact spot in which Benny’s helmet is cracked, add to how he really seems like a holdover from the 80s, especially next to the newer licensed minifigures in the film. The first minifigure to be designed intentionally broken, Benny’s imperfection is a great example of the Japanese design philosophy of Wabi-sabi; the spacefaring minifig wouldn’t have been as endearing (and as nostalgic) had he been all polished and shiny.

His catchphrase was alluded to in the introductory paragraph of this list and when it comes to animated astronauts, even Benny has to admit that Buzz is boss. In the first Toy Story film, Buzz Lightyear is Andy’s fancy new toy, whom the cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) views as competition. Buzz is unaware that he is but a plastic plaything and fully believes he is a space ranger. An elaborate back-story was devised for the character, which is explored in the animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command (Patrick Warburton voices this incarnation). Director John Lasseter was inspired by Apollo-era astronauts in coming up with the design and Buzz was named after real-life astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. Aldrin posed with a Buzz Lightyear action figure at a parade in Disney World. Via that very action figure, the Buzz Lightyear character became an “actual” astronaut – the toy was launched into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery in May 2008, spent a period of time as a “resident” of the International Space Station and returned to Earth 467 days later in August 2009. That figure is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

One of the most talked-about films of the 2013 awards season was Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller film Gravity, lauded for the stunning realism with which outer space was depicted. With Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as the only two actors to physically appear on-screen, much of the film’s breathtaking environment was created with groundbreaking digital effects work. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer and mission specialist on her maiden space voyage, alongside seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney). Bullock initially had her misgivings about Gravity, saying “we had no idea if it would be successful. You’d explain that it was an avant-garde, existential film on loss and survival in space and everyone would be like: ‘OK …’ It didn’t sound like a film people would be drawn to.” Despite these doubts, she threw herself headlong into the making of the film, strung or strapped into a lightbox that mimicked the frustrating loneliness of Stone’s plight. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her effort. Bullock stated in an interview with Collider that it was encouraging to see a lead female character like Ryan Stone feature in a sci-fi film. “Making this character female was hugely brave, but also it gives you so many different levels of angst and worry,” she said. “There are situations that you can build around it that I don’t think an audience has experienced just yet.”

Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel La Planète des Singes has spawned a massive franchise that is still going strong today, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes released earlier this year. The Planet of the Apes series first gained traction with the 1968 film starring the legendary Charlton Heston as George Taylor. Taylor is awakened from deep hibernation after a 2006-year-long voyage when his spacecraft crash-lands on a mysterious planet. Of course, this planet turns out to be earth of the far-future, taken over by intelligent, human-like apes. The chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius are the only apes who vouch for Taylor, who is enslaved and tortured by the others. Heston delivers the iconic line “get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” and also memorably crumbles to his knees crying “you maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” during that infamous ending reveal. Heston said that the Taylor character reflected his own views on mankind and that he was drawn to “the irony of a man so misanthropic that he almost welcomes the chance to escape entirely from the world finding himself then cast in a situation where he is spokesman for his whole species and forced to defend their qualities and abilities.” Heston reluctantly reprised his role in Beneath the Planet of the Apes and had a cameo (as the ape Zaius) in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake.

Few lines embody the stomach-churning realisation that something has gone horribly awry than “Houston, we have a problem”. The line Lovell uttered in real-life was actually “Houston, we’ve had a problem” – but hey, give this movie credit for all the aspects it got right. Ron Howard’s 1995 film depicts the troubled Apollo 13 lunar mission and was based upon the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, written by the real-life Jim Lovell with author Jeffrey Kluger. The 1970 NASA mission was jeopardised when an explosion caused the craft to lose most of its oxygen supply and electricity, necessitating the abortion of the mission and turning what was to be a trip to the moon into a desperate struggle to make it home. The real-life Lovell’s initial pick to play him was Kevin Costner, but Costner was not considered by Ron Howard, who offered the part to John Travolta. Eventually, it was Tom Hanks who got the part of Lovell. The zero-gravity scenes were filmed in the infamous “vomit comet”, a NASA airplane that would fly in parabolic arcs to grant a brief period of weightlessness to the occupants. We bet Hanks was the recipient of no shortage of “ground control to Major Tom” jokes on the set.

Also portraying a real-life Apollo-era astronaut was Ed Harris, playing John Glenn in The Right Stuff. Director Philip Kaufman’s 192 minute-long historical film chronicles the journey of the “Mercury Seven”, Navy, Marine and Air Force test pilots who were instrumental in the formation of the American space program. The real-life John Glenn is a pretty extraordinary human being: as a United States Marine Corp pilot during the Second World War, he flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific. In 1958, after rigorous trials, he became one of the “Mercury Seven. Four years later, Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. He served as Senator for the State of Ohio and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. Long after the events depicted in The Right Stuff, in 1998, Glenn became the oldest person to go into space at 77 years old. Harris auditioned for the part twice because he felt his first audition wasn’t good enough. Harris later played NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 and his minor voice role as Mission Control in Gravity was a nod to those two films.

Stanley Kubrick’s ambitious, hugely influential 1968 film, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s story, still holds up today as a shining example of the heights of sci-fi filmmaking, despite it already being 13 years since the year 2001. The film’s opening sequence takes place in prehistoric times with apelike early hominids fascinated by a large solid black rectangular block called the “monolith”. We then leap ahead 4 million years, the bulk of the movie taking place aboard the spacecraft Discovery One, bound for Jupiter. Dr. David Bowman (Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) have to deal with the ship’s on-board A.I., HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) who is becoming self-aware and dangerous. The film’s widely-debated ending has Bowman transcending existence itself, reborn as the “Star Child”. In an interview with Rip It Up, Dullea reflected upon his experience working on the monumental film, saying “I’m honoured to have been involved in Space Odyssey. I mean, I’ve made 25 feature films [and done lots of theatre and TV as well], give or take, and while I couldn’t say that it was the most demanding acting role I’ve had, what was most fascinating about it was getting into Kubrick’s mind – or maybe I should say him getting into my mind!” And how does Duella feel about being known primarily for being the “Dave” referred to in the line “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”? “If I’m remembered for one movie only, then what a film to choose!”