How the space race created a new genre of cinema

First there was Sputnik, then there was Alien, and now we have The Martian.

As a young Stephen King sat watching Earth versus Flying Saucers in 1957, the theatre manager stopped the film to report that the Soviets had launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. Instead of wonderment at such a monumental milestone, he was terrified. The Americans had believed themselves to be the dominant world power, leaving them shocked that the USSR had managed to organise and beat them to orbit.  

What did this mean for the USSR’s long-range ballististics capabilities? Could they now launch nuclear weapons into-sub orbit? Or spy on US citizens from space? 

As these questions permeated the dinner table discussions of many American households, screenwriters and directors began reflecting these fears in their own portrayals of the space race. The new genre they created would never die, changing Hollywood forever.    

While the horror of Sputnik gripped America, space gripped the attention of the public as it never had before. The ordinary citizen began looking up, buying a telescope and tuning their radios to hear Sputnik beep overhead. 

Before space movies became a reflection of US fear, screenwriters latched onto this cultural surge in cosmic interest with little innovation or creativity. A prominent example of this superficial attempt to draw audiences was the sitcom The Jetsons, a blatant copy of The Flintstones released in 1962 and designed to capitalise on the national interest in outer space. 

Similarly, just as the Western genre was inspired by American expansionism and Manifest Destiny, the Western Frontier became the Final Frontier in 1966 with Star Trek. This period of American cinema, spurred by the creation of NASA and a nation captured by the mysteries of space, were the first small steps of a monolithic change in Hollywood. 

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi drama, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a significant cinematic milestone as it rejected the repackaging of old stories and old plots. Reflecting the zeitgeist creatively, Kubrick explored the human impulse to conquer and our evolutionary tendency to use whatever technology available to achieve this.  

Only one year after the Hollywood space genre found thematic purpose with 2001, the space race was ‘won’ with a star-spangled banner on the moon. The combination of cosmic victory and Kubrick’s innovation ushered in a flurry of new and innovative space-based productions to Hollywood. This includes the Star Wars franchise (1977 – present), the Alien franchise (1979 – present), Apollo 13 (1995), Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), and many, many more.   

As budget cuts, disasters, and an increasingly disinterested public ended the glory days of NASA, one could expect the adjacent decline in Hollywood’s production of space movies. However, as we edge closer to and surpass cosmic achievements, like the success of the James Webb Telescope or NASA’s plan to return to the moon by 2025, these milestones only serve to pass the thematic baton to the next generation of filmmakers, carrying on the new and enduring genre created by the space race.