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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2017 > Close encounters of the gooey kind

Close encounters of the gooey kind

Two new films probe the existential angst of space travel and the alien other. They take their place in a well-established sci-fi school of philosophy, says Adam Mars-Jones

Science fiction is a genre doomed to profundity, unable to avoid banging its head or stubbing its toes against philosophical dilemmas as it goes about telling its stories. Though it doesn’t seem likely that well-thumbed copies of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness show up on the sets of many space operas, existentialism is always likely to put in an appearance when the theme is our aloneness in the universe or else the encounter, feared and desired, with otherness and the alien. Being alone in the universe and not being alone in the universe —two inexhaustible subjects.

A pair of recent American films, neither masterpieces but full of enjoyable elements, highlight these themes. In Passengers Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), an engineer travelling in suspended animation and one of thousands of people heading for a colonised planet, is woken nearly a century ahead of schedule. In the first third of the film, its most successful part, he learns that to be the only wakeful person in a world of sleepers is a living nightmare. This is solitude in its paradoxical modern form, full of empty interaction. When he wakes up, a smiling hologram leans over him with reassurance. Then he receives an upbeat briefing from a simulated speaker addressing a whole room full of passengers, unaware that she has an audience of one. When Jim tries to point this out, she sweetly raises a phantom finger and asks for questions to be left until the end.

In Passengers the engine of the spaceship Avalon is silent as it heads towards the colony planet. How quiet is deep space? Quiet seems the wrong word to denote the impossibility of sound. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) is one of the few films set outside the Earth’s atmosphere to respect its silence on the soundtrack. (Even Alien, despite the famous tagline of “In space no one can hear you scream,” made sure the throb of the Nostromo’s engines was audible from the first sequence.) Already those sounds tell us that the reality of nothingness has been blotted out—perhaps because a deep sound gives a powerful cue to our visual imagination, making it less likely that we will see the special effects in front of us as unreal.

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In Prospect’s February issue: Tom Clark and Luke Harding examine the attacks facing democracy. Clark reviews two books on democracy and suggests a new intellectual assault may be on the horizon. Harding looks at Russia’s attempts to derail the democratic process by focussing on its technical frailty. Melissa Deckman asks why women voted for Trump, while Duncan Bell charts the story of the Anglosphere and suggests Brexiteers are indulging in an old fantasy. Also in this issue: Matthew Harries asks if it’s time to ban the nuclear bomb, Adam Mars-Jones looks at the way we perceive aliens in films and Elizabeth Pisani explores the role of activists in changing the perception of Aids and its pushing for treatment.