Film-maker, critic and journalist, Cinema Studies graduate from the Tel-Aviv University Film School.
It seems that it is precisely science fiction stories- which often take place in immense, huge, sometimes even infinite spaces, in terms of space and time- that deal with the most basic concepts of human life: home, identity, humanity.
In fictional journeys to space, earth, which in everyday life is a vast external framework in which man must find his unique place, becomes one giant home for the entire humanity. In these works, human society becomes a family. As such, space travel has a unifying and connecting message from its beginning: we all live in the same home, “we are all in the same boat,” or the same spaceship.
Unlike terrestrial travels, space travel emphasizes our inability to grasp infinity – and the existential absurdity it expresses (we have expanded about our inability to grasp infinity in Issue # 1 on “Inhuman Scales”). See the articles of Eden Kupermintz, Gili Ron and Shalev Moran, which provide different views on the subject- U.A). In light of this lack, this rift, this deep abyss, these journeys express not once the man’s need, in acknowledgment of infinity, to place himself within it, or in front of it. The existentialist discussion in science fiction stories re-centers around the continuity of generations and the grip of man on life as meaningful, as a response to the basic human need to understand the universe and existence – and its place in them.
In this article, I will address three mythological cinematic journeys to space and examine the instances of homecoming in them.
In each of these films, the concept of “home” is of special, slightly different importance for the character who embarks on a journey – from which she returns, even if (slightly) different. The three films reflect a homecoming to a place that is both familiar and foreign, as the original home was lost and disappeared in time. In each of the examples the experience of homecoming- returning from space- is mixed with the feeling of the uncanny, the Unheimlich, where not only the space to which the characters return has changed but also the characters themselves, as a result of their journey, the time that has passed and the insights they have gathered along the way.
The Unheimlich is a Freudian expression that describes something that is grasped as both familiar and foreign at the same time. It is a dissonance that generates a threatening feeling of alienation. It is a cognitive gap that is created for the subject who experiences reluctance, fear and rejection from an object (in the cases in question here – the object is home), and at the same time – attraction to it.
A contradiction underlies the unheimlich, an unintuitive link between the domestic, the familiar and the experience of horror and alienation. In the specific context of home, a place that is supposed to be calming, comforting and reassuring – suddenly becomes a threatening and alienated space (about this in Dana Tor’s article, ‘The Anxiety of the Unheimlich’ and in Uri Aviv’s article, ‘The Internal Threat’ in this issue – U.A).
The heroes who return home from the journeys, who we will mention in this article, return to a similar but also different home from the one they have left. They start a process of re-acquaintance with themselves and their environment, and do not necessarily need their old home, from which, upon their return, they find themselves alienated.
The Late Return
Another significant concept is “The Late Return”, a familiar literary motif – some would say one of the most familiar motifs in Western culture- whose roots are entrenched in the story of the Odyssey: Odysseus returns home after years of travels and reunites with his wife Penelope – in their home.
Although in the Odyssey the protagonist returns to a home that still stands, to a living, familiar and even faithful woman who has been waiting for him – for the most part, “The Late Return” describes a return to a landscape and homeland that have changed beyond recognition, to a different world from the one the hero had left. The “Unheimlich” is obvious in these legends, the protagonist returns to the same home space he left but the world he returns to has changed, and he discovers that something of his own inner self changed as well. The home is not the same home, and the hero is not the same hero.
Solaris: Overcoming Time and Longing
The movie Solaris (1972, USSR) by director Andrei Tarkovsky is considered a cinematic masterpiece in general, and in the genre of science fiction in particular. Obviously, the literary masterpiece by Stanislaw Lem that was published a decade earlier (Poland, 1961) is also considered a significant milestone in the history of this literary genre.
Lem’s book was readapted to film in an American, acclaimed and interesting version from 2002, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney. However, in this article I will focus on the version of Tarkovsky, which is better in my opinion, and was announced at the time as the Soviet answer for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, USA / UK). It has been known ever since, and to this day, as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.
Solaris is a work that penetrates the depths of the soul of its protagonist as well as its readers and is constantly directed between the inside and the outside, between the present and memory, between reality and imagination – and consistently unites them. It deals with the study of human boundaries and human abilities to communicate and connect with one another and with the different, the unfamiliar, and in the deceptive and surprising way in which faith and knowledge can be weaved together.
The plot of Solaris follows a psychologist named Chris Calvin who is sent to a research station on the imaginary planet – Solaris. Calvin’s mission – to give an opinion on strange phenomena that supposedly occur in the place, according to the station’s team. Upon his arrival, he joins the station’s scientific team, whose members’ mental state is unstable. The reason for it is that they have been forced to get acquainted with “guests”: human-looking figures, which are connected to their past and come to visit them.
At first, Calvin, being a psychologist, thinks that the “guests” are the fruit of the scientists’ wild imagination, the result of working in complete solitude for years. It soon becomes clear that the “guests” are not hallucinations (at least not in the conventional sense of the word), as they do appear with a material body. In addition, it becomes clear that the “guests” feel and act like the humans they “copy” (and to be precise – like the memory that remained in the scientists’ mind of the original person on which they are based).
While trying to interpret these phenomena, whether supernatural or psychological, and how they relate to the properties of the unique planet that the scientists are studying, Calvin suddenly envisions his late lover, Hari. The reunion with her allows Calvin to relive (but only in Solaris – U.A) their lost love, but also the painful tragedy in which it ended – Hari’s suicide following the decrease of Calvin’s love for her. Hari’s appearance symbolizes in the story both the overcoming of time but also the inability to evade and overcome the past.
It will be easy to see how concepts from the world of the mind and psychology (including “the unheimlich“) occupied Lem in his writing, and Tarkovsky when he came to adapt the film, and how they tried to provoke a discussion about the human psyche in situations it is not used to be found – through science fiction.
Tarkovsky’s contribution to the sci-fi genre here is at the beginning of his career, but he returns to it later with his film Stalker (1979, USSR). Through science fiction’s ability to produce hypotheses and scenarios that are not possible in real life, Tarkovsky has repeatedly dealt with philosophical, moral, theological, and metaphysical issues.
The concept of “home” is very significant in the cinematic adaptation of Solaris; Tarkovsky’s work begins and ends with “home”. In the opening scenes, Calvin is seen walking in the landscape of his childhood, between forests and lakes, with the beautiful family home in the background. The house, built entirely of wood, creates a natural, pastoral and simple feeling, and is presented in contrast to the spaces that will appear later in the film- cold, metallic and artificial spaces. The wooden country house is first shown in the reflection of the water of the lake at its feet, which illuminates another aesthetic motif, which is central in the film: reflections. These reappear again and again as the film presents mirrors and glass, in which the “real” reality is reflected. It is a simple but beautiful image of the main ideas in the film – the connection between original and copy, reality and image, and of course, memory. The “guests” are the reflections of the scientists’ memory, a mirror image of figures from their past, identical in every external characteristic but lacking the slippery realness of the real, original, experience in the past.
Calvin begins the movie at his father’s house and ends it with what appears to be a copied version of it, built from his memories. A copy inside Solaris. Gradually, the viewer realizes that the house to which Calvin returns at the end of the movie is not the same house he left, the one from the first scenes. Even if the last shot of the film clearly reveals what can be suspected even earlier (we are not where we think we are), the clues are woven throughout the entire scene. The lake, whose ripples in the water we had seen and heard at first, is now frozen and still; the house is no longer reflected in it – perhaps because it is itself a reflection, a replica of the original house.
These subtle hints are joined by one of the greatest shots in the film, in which opposing elements of water and fire meet and unite: Calvin approaches and peeps through the window into the house. Inside – it is raining, and outside, behind it, a fire is lit. We are in a dream, or a hallucination, but since dreams in this work are not exactly “dreams”, we can only conclude that we are in one of the mental tricks of the seemingly intelligent planet, Solaris, or if we wish, in one of the tricks of the film’s director, Andrei Tarkovsky.
Although many see Solaris’ enigmatic ending as an expression of pessimism, to me there is something consoling in this homecoming: Calvin realizes that he cannot beat time and longing, cannot bring back his old life – but he can build in his memory a world that reminds him of the purity and simplicity of his youth in the wooden country house on earth.
The home he returns to is not the same home, but Calvin is also definitely not the same Calvin from the beginning of the film, and this fact gives the ending a sense of comfort and closure, to my opinion.
Contact: The search for life, following death
Robert Zemeckis’ science fiction film Contact (1997, USA) is completely different from Tarkovsky’s film but its discussion of the connection between science and faith makes it a clear thematic sequel to Solaris.
The plot, based on a book of the same name by the well-known scientist Carl Sagan, focuses on an astronomer named Eleanor, “Ellie” Arroway, who studies radio signals coming from outer space, in order to locate scientific signs for the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Ellie and her project are part of an activity on the fringes of science, which is considered crazy, the SETI – Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. As a child, Ellie lived with her father (her mother died in childbirth), and it was he who introduced her to the wonders of scientific research, beauty and mystery of space, and bequeathed her great love for astronomy, as well as for “radio groupies” (Ellie is full of excitement and her father radiates with pride when she manages to converse with another groupie in the city of Pensacola in remote Florida).
She experiences considerable political difficulties and shortage of resources for her activities, in light of her eccentric field of work, but her determination and boldness cause a philanthropist to support her efforts. One day she discovers a radio signal from an unknown source, a message that is clearly unnatural. Ellie is determined to convince those around her – the scientific establishment, the White House, the entire world – that this is a potential discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The deciphering of the broadcast, after an exhausting journey of persuasions and terrible and painful accidents along the way, provides her with a one-time opportunity to fly and meet the aliens using a space vehicle built specifically according to the instructions in the broadcast she received. She embarks on the exciting journey and returns. She understands that the difficulty of reaching the distant planet to which she was sent is nothing compared to the difficulty of convincing humanity that she did indeed contacted intelligent life outside of Earth. The devices she had with her did not record a thing, it is her word against the devices, political interests, cultural forces, and the masses, who wonder whether to believe her or not.
Gradually, “Contact” is developed as a film about the possible, but not necessary, conflict between science and belief: in the beginning we perceive the scientist’s position, and as it progresses – we perceive the occurrences as real intellectuals, a bit like Ellie herself.
Precisely as a film that operates within the commercial, Hollywood framework – it is surprisingly and astonishingly spiritual, poetic and experimental. Contact is science fiction cinema at its best, and it does so with great emotion and incredible skill: starting from breathtaking suspense, continuing with unique effects (on the front of technology and media as of 1997) and ending with great human drama intertwined with theological, philosophical and ethical debates, which guided the path of many of the greatest science fiction films of recent decades.
Other than that – and unfortunately, in a way that is not very common in the genre of science fiction – it is also a feminist work, from A to Z (Arrival by Denis Villeneuve, which resembles Contact in many ways, is another example. (Arrival, USA / Canada, 2016).
Like Solaris, and also Interstellar, to which I will refer later, Contact is thematically built around inter-generational family relationships – father and daughter in this case. However, surprisingly and unusually for the female character in a movie, and even though her life revolves around her love, longing and gratitude for her dead father – Ellie does not show any desire to have children, and the movie does not provoke a direct discussion on this personal issue, or in the broader sense, on the question of generational continuity. An implicit way in which the film nevertheless deals with this question is reflected in its final scene: Ellie guides a group of girls and boys and tries to encourage them to take interest in astronomy, science and the study of space. She does so with great talent and grace. The complete disregard for the cultural pattern of a woman as a mother-to-be is necessarily one of Contact‘s virtues in my opinion, and another example of its complexity.
Zemeckis was and remains, despite the image of the “technician” that stuck with him, a filmmaker whose thought is entirely visual and aesthetic, in ways that are reminiscent of his great partner, Steven Spielberg (Contact was directed after the masterful “Forest Gump”). The most prominent visual feature of Contact is the use of digital camera movements from the inside to the outside and vice versa. The movie opens with the “Zoom Out” movement, from the earth out and out to the vast spaces of the universe, at the end of which the camera arrives/ “comes out” from the eye of Ellie, the girl. The whole infinite universe is conceptually connected, in a simple digital camera movement, to the psyche and inner self of the individual – and this is the action that is repeated over and over in the genre films, according to my claim. We are not separated from the world and the universe – we are part of it, we are in it, and it is within us.
Zemeckis’ aesthetic choice to connect the inside and the outside is given a thematic expression in the last part of the movie, in Ellie’s journey. Like the other two films in question, consciousness and reality merge, interior and exterior intertwine, Ellie’s inner world takes on a material, external expression – in the form of her encounter with a copied version of her father, somewhere in outer space, supposedly near the planet Vega. Ellie’s passage through a wormhole is visually reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey that preceded it, and Interstellar that followed it. At this climactic moment Ellie utters the most beautiful quote in the film, certainly the most poetic one in it, when Ellie stares astounded through the window of the spaceship, at an astronomical view whose description is pale in comparison to the depth of its beauty and utters: “They should have sent a poet.”
Unlike the other films I will mention, Ellie’s journey to space comes only at the end of the movie, and this is also its singularity: Ellie is in fact on an ongoing inner journey from the beginning of the movie, from the moment her father dies unexpectedly and she, in an attempt to bring him back, searches for life on distant planets, against all odds. Ellie’s life is a life of loneliness and exile of a woman in a world (and profession) that is culturally attributed to men. As a result, the catharsis that takes place in the marvelous scene on the planet Vega – her renewed and brief encounter with her father – symbolizes her homecoming, precisely when she is in the farthest place from any home that any human foot has ever stepped in. The encounter itself (the contact in the title of the film) is a clear “unheimlich” experience, both visually and in the way her replicated, imagined father looks. It has the warmth and love of the original father, but it is also clear that it is shaped from memory only (which echoes Solaris for us).
When Eli returns to Earth from her journey in the alien space vehicle, she discovers that no one on Earth believes she has visited there – as throughout her entire life, no believed her about her professional field of work. The data is against her. The cameras and devices she had with her did not record a thing. Ellie, who symbolizes science, skepticism, thought and rationale, has to take the believer’s place now: when the commission of inquiry asks for real evidence of her contact with the aliens – and she has none – she simply replies that she “believes” in all her might that it happened. She admits that she has no other way of proving it.
The issue of belief in general, and in god in particular, is central to the film, and is also expressed through the character of Palmer Joss, the religious scholar (starring Matthew McConaughey) whose relationship with Ellie represents a conflict, but also a connection, between science and religion, knowledge and belief. The process she goes through in getting closer to Palmer is parallels to the process she goes through from a scientist who leaves no place for belief in her life – to a spiritual person, even if explicitly not religious.
On the question of whether Ellie has left Earth at all, or perhaps the encounter she reported on is the fruit of her wild imagination and her blind passion to retrieve the past, meet her late father again, and fulfill the dream – you can answer yourself, by watching the film. The film explicitly hints that the encounter did happen (I, myself am less fond of this explicit allusion), but leaves room for doubt. Either way, her journey is a journey to the spiritual, the abstract and the sublime, whether she has met with aliens or not. Contact is her contact with the inexplicable, the unexplainable, no less than it is contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. She returns from this journey as a different person and discovers a new world for herself and for others, one in which science and belief can live side by side in the same society, community, and even in the same person.
Interstellar: Going on a Journey, Once Again
The last film I will refer to is Interstellar (Interstellar, USA / UK / Canada, 2014), Christopher Nolan’s monumental film that divided critics and audiences even more than his previous films. The plot takes place about seventy years into our future. Earth is experiencing an ecological catastrophe, one of the main symptoms of which are pests that completely eradicate grain crops, all over the world. Hunger grows, spreads. The collapse of human society is manifested, among other things, in the bankruptcy of governments and the gradual cessation of all technological development – including the American space program. In the midst of these terrible days, a human group, the last NASA astronauts, embark on a secret journey to discover new worlds, where there may be a future, hope, for humankind. The film’s protagonist is Joe “Cope” Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey, who also played the character of Palmer in Contact), a former pilot who leads the team on a journey filled with surprises and turmoils all the way to the edge of the universe, and back.
Nolan is unmistakable a commercial director, whose films are hugely popular, but he is also one of the great film artists of our time, a creator with a unique footprint who repeatedly deals with the themes of time, dream and memory – making a spectacular and exciting use of the artistic means of big budget cinema. Interstellar is perhaps the pinnacle of Nolan’s career, especially when it comes to exploiting the capabilities of using editing as a tool that breaks down the film into layers and loads scenes with meanings, by comparing them.
Interstellar resembles the previous films mentioned in this article, which were produced and shown in a gap of 20 years from one another, both in the thematic engagement with the father/daughter relationship (and, as mentioned above, with the generational continuity as a motive of sci-fi movies) and of course in the familiar collision between religion and science, spirit and matter, faith and knowledge. All these are embodied in Cooper’s character, the cynical realist, who receives a lesson about faith and love.
Like Solaris, the film exhibits a difference between Cooper’s family home, an old wooden house surrounded by a spacious green field, and the living and habitation environments later in the film – the NASA base, the space station, the spaceship and the various planets in which he and we visit – all designed in a monochromatic and cold fashion. This difference emphasizes home as a source of calm, naturalness and serenity (while the house gradually withers), as humanity is forced to leave its home and go search for a new one in space (calm, naturalness and serenity?).
Unlike previous films in which the father is left behind, in this film the absent father is himself the protagonist. Cooper leaves the country house and his family to join NASA, leaving behind his daughter and son. His daughter, Murphy “Murph, will have an essential role later in the plot: he gives her a watch upon embarking on the journey, a reoccurring motive in the film, in which time is a central, significant element, as any action taken by Cooper and his associates throughout space will affect the whole course of humanity (and this without entering into issues of private and general relativity – U.A).
Interstellar also resonates Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose shadow is cast on every cinematic journey into space that follows it (and of course based on the book of one of the greatest sci-fi writers of the 20th century, Arthur C. Clark). The name of the work (of Clark and Kubrick) is of course an echo of the Homeric Odyssey, the original story of homecoming. The enigmatic ending of Kubrick’s film, on which complete texts can be written in an attempt (without complete success, of course) to interpret it, is a clear example of the integration of the concept of “home” and the infinite spaces of space – and of course the phenomenon of the unheimlich in cinema. Like Dave Bowman, the protagonist of Kubrick’s film, who finds himself crashing into infinity – aging in a peculiar home created for him, and eventually dying and being reborn as a space baby, a new swallow for a new humanity, space humanity, somewhere in the universe. Cooper in Interstellar also goes out to infinity, but only to get back to his home and daughter. The home in the moments of his return is embodied by an old wooden library; with the help of Murph he saves humankind from extinction and ensures the continuity of generations.
Like in Solaris and Contact, in Interstellar, homecoming is only possible when receiving help (in this case from a completely unexpected source), one that raises questions about faith and science. The enigmatic end of the film can be viewed as an attempt to present a connection between the eternal and infinite universe and the soul of the individual, and his existential need of home and family as a source of meaning. And back to the beginning of the article: the journey expresses the man’s need, in recognition of infinity, to place himself within it, or in front of it; as a response to the basic human need to understand the universe and existence – and its place in them.
The homecoming in Nolan’s film takes place in stages. In the last one, when Cooper wakes up and discovers that he is in a huge space station that simulates the old world, the world in which he grew up, the world he remembers from his youth (sort of, gravity for example does not work the same way, ‘minutiae’ – U.A). As an act of respect for him, an exact replica of his family home was built (reality and world and a house, which are both familiar and strange for Cooper, in an unheimlich manner – U.A). Cooper returns to the replica, which resonates ideologically with the copied father Allie meets me at the end of Contact, and of course also with the copied house at the end of Solaris – only to realize that home it is not the same home, and he himself is not the same person.
The late homecoming is most strongly expressed in the moving scene of Cooper’s encounter with his daughter, whom he meets, due to the effects of space travelling in enormous speeds (relative speeds, close to the speed of light- U.A), when she is now an old lady, significantly older than him (she us still wearing the watch he gave her when he set out on the journey.) Cooper returns home too late with the ultimate sacrifice for his daughter and for the continued existence of humanity – but he still enjoys moments of comfort, an indulgence on the memory of the almost forgotten, old world, which does not exist anymore.
At the end of the film, Nolan gives “Coop” and us, hope – for all of humanity and for the realization of a private love, both of which seemed lost. After the painful, difficult, exhausting journey he experienced; after the impossible homecoming, Cooper realized that the home he returned to was not his home anymore. With full knowledge of what awaits him, he decides to leave Earth again, embarking on the journey anew.
Except Cooper’s inner and spiritual search, in Interstellar, the entire humanity seeks (and even finds) a new home instead of the previous home which was completely demolished; a place to which you can cling, feel safe in it in the future. As in other science fiction films the personal journey is also a collective journey. The journeys of one, or of one team, is the journey of the entire humanity.
The three films mentioned here, as well as other science fiction works, literary and cinematic and in every media, re-engage with the concept of “home” and homecoming to explore the human psyche and the connections between it and its environment on earth. Science fiction works in general, and literary and cinematic journeys into space in particular, open for us a window into infinite worlds and spaces that can be explored, from which one can be impressed, inspired, excited, be careful of, but in the end, from which one can return home (“The real journey is coming home”, Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed).
Where? – to the small planet, third from the sun, and as Karl Sagan writes – “The pale blue dot”, to which we still, and for the foreseeable future, call home.