From Gagarin to Armageddon: Soviet-American Relations in the Cold War Space Epic
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 31, Number 2, 2001
- pp. 45-51
- View Citation
- Additional Information
A. Bowdoin Van Riper | Special In-Depth Section From Gagarin to Armageddon: Soviet-American Relations in the Cold War Space Epic A. Bowdoin Van Riper Social and International Studies Program Southern Polytechnic State University The phrase "Cold War science fiction films" inevitably conjures up images of giant insects , alien invaders, and the end of the world. Films of this type account for most of Hollywood's science fiction output between the late 1940s and the late 1980s, and their status as cultural artifacts of the Cold War has been discussed at length.1 There is, however, another dimension to the story: a much smaller sub-genre that, for the purposes of this essay, I will term "space procédurals." The space procedural, like its mystery-story counterpart the police procedural, is defined by its realism and its focus on the details of its characters' professional activities. The difference between a space procedural and a film that simply takes place in space is a matter ofemphasis . In the former, space travel remains in the foreground and drives the plot; in the latter, it is simply means of moving the characters around. Apollo 13 (1995) is a space procedural; Star Wars (1977) is not. Space procédurals are common in written science fiction, but have always been comparatively scarce on film.2 Destination Moon, generally acknowledged as the first, appeared in 1950 and fewer than a dozen have followed it. The rarity of space procédurals is a product of two factors: their production costs, and their dismal record as entertainment. High costs are a builtin hazard of the sub-genre. Depicting space travel realistically, as Robert Heinlein wrote while a consultant on Destination Moon, takes time, money, and careful attention to detail. Low entertainment value is another matter. It is due less to the inherent limits of the form than to Hollywood's unfamiliarity with it and to filmmakers' tendency to lose track of plot and character in their anxiety to keep the technical details under control. The money thrown at a typical space travel procedural does not always buy effective storytelling, but it generally buys craftsmanship , and space procédurals thus tend to be well-made. They Beating the Soviets to the moon is, for the Americans in Countdown (1968), an absolute good. also tend, because they are carefully crafted, to deliver their messages (implicit or explicit ) with a clarity and precision lacking in less expensive, less prestigious science fiction films. Early space procédurals tended to be apolitical, relying on Man vs. Nature conflicts to drive their plots. Where Man vs. Man conflict existed at all, it tookplace between members of the crew or between the crew and officials on Earth, never between nations. The closest that Destination Moon comes to a political statement is a vague reference to the need to reach the moon before other, unspecified foreign powers claim it as their own. Neither the steady intensification of the Cold War nor the "space race" inaugurated by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik Iin 1957 brought significant changes in space procédurals. The 1961 flight of Soviet cosmonautYuri Gagarin and President John F. Kennedy's subsequent call for an American moon landing by the end of the decade had no visible effect on the sub-genre. The major space travel films ofthe mid-1960s tend toward comic-book broadness, not detailed realism.3 Beginning in 1968, however, space procédurals became increasingly realistic and ColdWarpolitics began to play an increasingly explicit role in them. There is no obvious, satisfying explanation for this shift, or for why it happened when it did. It is tempting, but probably misleading, to link it to the gradual slackening of superpower tensions that began with the Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It is equally tempting, and probably equally misleading, to see it as an attempt to capitalize on the rapidly advancing Apollo program. The real reason is likely more complicated and more prosaic, tied to shooting schedules, the availability of spacerelated properties, and Hollywood's cyclical interest in science fiction. Whatever the reason, the space procedural became politically aware in 1968. This essay is concerned with what Vol. 31.2 (2001...