Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy 1981 The BBC series adaptation of Douglas Adams’ book. Produced and Directed by Alan J.W. Bell. Shortly before the earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace thruway, Ford Prefect (David Dixon) comes to collect his friend Arthur Dent (Simon Jones) still in pajamas and robe. Next thing Arthur knows they’ve hitchhiked aboard an unfriendly Vogon spaceship with babblefish in their ears to translate alien announcements.
It seems Ford is a contributing writer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, an electronic book covering the hows, whys, wheres and whats of what’s out there. He likes Arthur and has rescued him. They ricochet from ship to ship to planet. Featured characters include two-headed outlaw Zaphod Beeblebrox (Mark Wing-Davey), his girl Trillian (Sandra Dickinson), who Arthur is sure he once met at a not very good party, and Marvin, a robot with the temperament of A.A. Milne’s Eyore (David Learner in the costume, Stephen Moore-voice). Peter Jones is the voice of the book.
Examples of tone: At one point, Arthur resorts to a ship’s infinite improbability drive which turns attack missiles into a very surprised looking whale and a bowl of petunias… While humanity had always assumed that it was the most intelligent species on earth, in fact the dolphins were more intelligent, and had left the planet some time before. It’s wry, odd and entertaining. Not to be confused with the truly dreadful 2005 American remake. Rent on Amazon Prime
E.T. 1982 Based on an imaginary friend Steven Spielberg created after his parents’ 1960 divorce. Directed by Spielberg. Just a reminder. The marvelous tale of ten year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas) who with older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) befriends and defends stranded extraterrestrial E.T. until he can get a lift home. Get out your handkerchiefs. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Starman 1984 Directed by John Carpenter. In response to an invitation on the phonograph record in Space Probe Voyager 2, an alien (Jeff Bridges) voyages to earth, but is shot down by the U.S. government wrecking his craft. Hoping not to frighten Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) in whose house he takes refuge, he/it assumes the form of her late husband gravely upsetting her. The first message he sends home is that earth is hostile. (No kidding.)
When Jenny calms down enough to be semi-rational, the alien presses her to drive him to a rendezvous point where he’ll be picked up in three days. If not, he’ll die. At first wary, she sees how gentle he is and agrees. They’re pursued by authorities. At one point, Jenny gets shot and the starman heals her. Later, they make love. (Where’s the sequel with his offspring?) While the NSA intends to capture him dead or alive, a representative from SETI steps in. Bridges is terrific. Awkwardness of speech, body and process of learning seem completely credible. A sympathetic and tender film. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Space Cowboys 2000 Produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. Ideal cast chemistry: Commander Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood), Colonel William “Hawk” Hawkins, USAF (Tommy Lee Jones), Captain Jerry O’Neill, USAF (Donald Sutherland), and Captain the Reverend “Tank” Sullivan, USAF (James Garner), are a retired former NASA astronaut team. When Soviet communications satellite IKON threatens to decay out of orbit and fall, Corvin is approached because its electronics are (curiously) based on his original design.
Enemy Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), now heads the department, but Corvin both thinks it’s his duty to help and can’t wait to get back up there. He insists the entire “Daedalus Team” be brought back to man the repair ship. Gerson counters they all must pass fitness tests and readies a younger team assuming failure. With a little help from sympathetic engineer Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden), the four appear to do so.
In space, the team discovers IKON houses six nuclear missiles, a violation of The Outer Space Treaty. Clearly Gerson’s been secretly involved. If the satellite falls, its missiles will fire. The solution is smart and sacrificial. A must see for the middle-aged of both sexes. Those younger might get the message that vital shelf life can be longer than presumed. Wonderful dialogue, superb acting. Portrayals of 1958 characters are filmed with younger actors dubbed by their older counterparts. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Gravity 2013 Produced, edited, written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock – interesting choice) and Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are marooned outside a dead ship in space. They try to get to the International Station, but finding that crew has evacuated, change trajectory and fail again. Realizing whatever chance is had cannot support two, Kowalski sacrifices himself and floats away.
The rest of our time is spent with Stone who struggles with the implausibility of safe return. Resilience in the aftermath of catastrophe spotlights determination, training, improvisation skills, and the will to survive as well as omnipresent fear. The rest is space. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Interstellar 2014 Co-Produced, written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Humanity’s survival is threatened by ignored ecology. Former NASA engineer Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) owns a dying farm on which he lives with his father (John Lithgow), son Tom (Casey Affleck), and daughter Murphy (Jessica Chastain). We meet the latter first as children. When singular dust patterns appear on Murphy’s floor, Joseph deduces the reason and tracks down former boss, Professor John Brand (Michael Caine).
Years ago, twelve planets were discovered on the other side of a wormhole, several inhabitable. Brand has come up with two possible recolonization solutions. Cooper is recruited to pilot one of the ships. While in space, a mistake announces his death to the family. Murphy grows up to be a scientist. Time “dilates” and 23 years pass. An event horizon propels them through another 51. The complicated premise is a combination of string theory and space as we conceive it.
Across different time periods, Cooper can see through the bookcases of Murphy’s old room on earth and weakly interact with its gravity. It’s vital he get information to the past. The scenario, based on physicist Kip Thorne’s work, is about “the most exotic events in the universe suddenly becoming accessible to humans.” Challenging. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Martian 2015 Based on a novel by Andy Weir. Directed by Ridley Scott. After a severe storm, astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (Mark Damon) is presumed dead and left behind on Mars by his expedition. The resident communication system is damaged beyond repair. Whatney knows his only chance is surviving four years until the next scheduled mission arrives. He keeps a diary which we see enacted. Methods are fascinating (and evidently well researched), but Damon shows us the astronaut’s interior life with particular skill. When rescue finally arrives, success is still not assured. Solid film making.
Damon said he and Scott were inspired by the documentary film Touching the Void (2003), featuring trapped mountain climbers. NASA consulted on science and technology. With Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wigg, and Jeff Daniels. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Arrival 2016 Based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Directed by Dennis Villeneuve. Twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft hover over locations around the Earth. The exceptional premise here is that we try to communicate rather than destroy the vessels. In Montana, U.S. Army Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to make contact with ship’s aliens.
The two come “face to face” with seven-limbed aliens they call heptapods and throw themselves into researching the visitors’ complex language (visual and sound) with the collaboration of other nations. Louise finds herself flashing on her deceased daughter. Misinterpretation of a single phrase threatens the ship when nothing else points to danger. Rogue soldiers plant a bomb. Dismissed, Louise goes back alone and is told by the beings they’ve come to help humanity.
She then has something of a hallucinatory experience dispelling linear perception of time, allowing her to experience visions of future events as if they were memories. (String theory anyone?) One involves her daughter. Louise manages to utilize information garnered in the altered state to prevent disaster.
“Both the book and the screenwriting required the invention of a form of alien linguistics which recurs in the plot. Script is designed by an artist; sound files created with consultation from a phonetics expert.” Compelling. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Top photo: Bigstock