The premise seems uncannily realistic: cosmonaut gets sick in space, too sick for re-entry, so the only option (other than to let them die) is to operate on them in space. But until now, all movies and teleplays with scenes taking place “in space” have had a kind of subtle flatness to them, certainly not fatal, but limiting in terms of perspective: everyone knows they aren’t really in space. Enter the makers of the Russian movie “Challenge,” which has begun filming at the International Space Station based on that plot premise. It will be the first feature film shot in space. Some may see this as a cheap (though not financially cheap) gimmick, but I’m falling for it like a lovesick child. I love it. I love that there’s a producer and actor in space right now doing this — and that surely more film crews will become space crews.
Actor Yulia Peresild and film producer Klim Shipenko of “Challenge” narrowly edged out Tom Cruise and Elon Musk, who are reportedly working on a project with NASA to shoot an action-adventure film in space. It’s easy to make fun of both of those men, of course, but it’s also hard not to take Musk’s appearance on the scene as an indication not only of the inevitability of space movies in space, but also the emerging normalcy of living and working in space. This is only underlined by Space-X entering the marketplace of something as gratuitous as pure entertainment.
But I’m also interested in the aesthetics of space, because we know space can be beautiful and perspectivally huge! Dialogue, fights, sex scenes — all in zero gravity. Actual space out the window as a backdrop. Spacewalks being choreographed into scenes. Characters interacting with the Earth as the actual backdrop. If it’s true (and of course it is) that the scenery and location weave their way into the way the actors act and the crew produces the content, it will be truly exciting to see how space weaves its way into the entire enterprise of filmmaking. It will fundamentally change filmmaking.
Six years ago, Charles Matthau wrote in Wired about the impact of digital technology on film, from shooting to editing to distribution and even storage costs. He called digital film a game-changer, and I think filming in space will also be a game-changer — including for earthbound filming — because film will become conscious of being earthbound or spacefaring.
One thing I’m specifically thinking about is how we’re going to see space scenes through a new lens, and not the utilitarian NASA video feeds or older archived films of space flight and moon walks. It will be fascinating and probably mind-blowing to see what top-level cinematographers, editors and directors do beyond the mesosphere.
And a final thing I’m thinking about is film workers in space: about how much Elon Musk hates unions and how studio elites exploit people working in the film industry already. Organized labor needs to follow the expansion of industrial and artistic enterprises in space. This is a timely and vital issue, especially after the recent accidental killing of a crew member by a prop gun, all while film crews organize a strike over their terrible working conditions. One can easily see an obsessive director asking a film crew to set up something dangerous, or asking crew members to risk their own lives and bodies to increase the effectiveness of a shot, or the thrill factor of a scene. When that happens (and it will) we need to be ready to fight back.
But in the meantime, let’s see what space movies will look like.