A famous author once said, “Any sufficiently opaque science fiction narrative is indistinguishable from a Christ allegory.” (Or something along those lines.) We should expect any movie set in low earth orbit to at least consider why we don’t see any dudes with harps perched on clouds. Science fiction draws theological metaphor to it like ravenous bug aliens to abandoned space stations, but reviewers and critics tend to avoid discussing the spiritual roots of a lot of contemporary genre fiction. Instead, the critical conversation is almost entirely about the technical wizardry needed to simulate zero G, or what type of underwear astronauts dress in.
Genre fiction has long been a realm for grappling with religious ideas, and critics should know better than to expect a movie set in space to only be about jetpacks and oxygen levels. For early science fiction novelists, the Moon was as distant from day-to-day life as heaven was. Is it a surprise, then, that C.S. Lewis went from converting to Christianity to writing about going to Mars and Venus? The leaps of intuition and imagination needed to picture what life would be life in the future or on other planets mirror those needed to embrace religion.
So we get Lewis’s Space Trilogy, and we get heavy Catholic themes in Tolkien, and we get Madeline L’engle being ham-handed about angels and aliens in a way that’d make the History Channel blush. That thin veneer of fantasy just becomes a way to grapple with existential angst and predestination and prophecy without having to put on our most learned robes and our spectacles.
This connection works both ways – without getting too blasphemous, it can be edifying to imagine religious texts as a form of pre-technological speculative fiction. The Book of Job serves well as a short story interrogating the nature of evil precisely because of its mythopoetic elements. Without the argument between Satan and God, it would just be a depressing bit of literature about a good dude who has bad things happening to him. Likewise, Revelation is straight up and down a speculative story about the future, complete with deadly meteors and horrifying hybrid monsters. Without getting too far into a theological swamp, the speculative aspects become a lens used to look at the promises made by religion, and to promise how they will end.
There is a shared interest in extremes – extremes of morality, extremes of behavior. If there are no atheists in foxholes, surely there are no Unitarians in hard vacuum. Sometimes this is explicit, as in Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow’s depiction of a Jesuit-funded mission to a new planet. She implies that only the devoutly religious would be willing to risk their temporal selves on the dangerous journey to a distant world with alien life, and maybe that’s true. Or perhaps it’s more that incredible risk and existential peril forces characters to pick a side: nihilism or zealotry.
Most recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity told a story of a woman who’s lost her child and must learn how to continue living in the face of her own despair. As a series of unfortunate explosions kills every other astronaut, Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) must go to increasingly baroque lengths to survive. At several points she almost gives up; at several points she finds the strength to go on. When she attempts suicide in an escape capsule, it becomes clear to us that it is far easier for her to die than to live.
The film literalizes the idea that for someone who has lost their only child, continuing to exist is a struggle. The simplest thing to do would be to let the oxygen run out and to fall asleep. Instead, she learns how to continue to live when she’s not even sure if she has anything to live for. The film forces both the protagonist and the viewer to experience the crushing, omnipresent nearness of death in hard vacuum and the transition from suicidal terror to faith in the value of life. She learns to pray, mirroring the radio messages she sends to “Houston in the blind,” not sure if the NASA space center can even hear her, let alone help her. Meanwhile, the camera lingers on a Russian ikon and a statue of Buddha.
None of this is subtle! In fact, I would argue that the roller coaster ride of the plot exists only to provide a framework of disaster on which to hang Dr. Stone’s crisis of faith. So why aren’t we talking about Gravity as religious science fiction?
In some ways, it’s not surprising that these recurring themes in sci fi go undiscussed. Genre fiction has a long history of talking about one thing (religion, mortality, the nature of humanity) while appearing to talk about another (space ships, clones, robots with very strong fists). Probably we should blame the USSR. One of the earliest dystopian novels, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, was a thinly veiled allegory about the dangers of Bolshevism, written after the Russian Revolution and projecting the threat it posed to society into the distant future. The only way to grapple with the utopianism of Soviet mythology was to write a counter-utopia.
The prescriptivist pop culture of the Soviet Union forced filmmakers to layer their ideas under genre convention, leading to Art films that hid their intent behind layers of genre and adventure and lush camerawork. The easiest example is Tarkovsky: an incredibly Christian director living in a time where that was simply not allowed, but still driven to make movies about his faith. He buried his thoughts – on Christ, on charity, on death – in movies about sneaking into abandoned and overgrown industrial complexes to get wishes granted, or about alien planets whose oceans can recreate people from your memories.
Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the most direct example of the theme of hiding God in outer space. On its surface, it’s a slow-paced thriller about a research space station studying a mysterious ocean on an unexplored planet. But the sea’s habit of recreating the dead loved ones of the researchers isn’t played for action. It’s a structure to let the lead scientist monologue at length on ideas of universal love and the nature of loss. We never learn whether there is extraterrestrial intelligence at play – it is unclear if the ocean is responding to unconscious prayers of the researchers. In a more contemporary and shallow sci fi movie, we would demand an explanation of what exactly was happening on that planet. But in the end, the scientist chooses to accept what is offered to him without understanding it. His descent to a newly-risen island in the alien ocean becomes a kind of personalized rapture: going to a place where his dead loved ones still live without having to die himself.
By layering genre tropes over the religious message, Tarkovsky was able to slip his Christian theology past atheist censors. The only way for him to make a movie about the limits of rationality and the role of faith in his life was to adopt the form of science fiction. Some of his successors were even subtler with their themes.
In Duncan Jones’ Moon, what appears to be a hard sci fi story about illegal corporate activity buries its themes of alienation, personal growth, and development under a thick sediment of implanted memories and clone disease. The question of how to grow, how to become a better person, when to sacrifice a part of yourself – these are spiritual issues, which are confronted by leaving the main character absolutely alone with himself. Where a 19th-century Russian novelist might have his protagonist reading a Bible in solitary confinement, in the 21st century Duncan Jones has him talk to his own clone on the Moon.
Apparently, it may be too hard for critics to recognize the religious messages in the text of genre fiction. But given this history of deeper intent in science fiction, shouldn’t they be expecting it? The ending of the reboot of Battlestar Galactica received a lot of flack from fans for its overtly religious message, despite their being told from the beginning that God has a plan for all the characters on the show. Yet some fans expected a materialist explanation for the protagonists’ mystical visions.
And so, we watch a movie about a woman who must learn how to keep living and can only talk about whether the explosions were accurate enough. We watch a movie about a man who must confront the brash and fucked-up personality of his own past self and can only talk about how realistic its portrayal of moon mining is. Much as animation is viewed as a genre instead of a medium, we’ve been trained to see science fiction as a genre focused on science. We should work instead to see the edges of what is being shown to us – to talk about how space ships demonstrate both the might and the limits of rationality.