Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

States of Weightlessness: Cosmonauts in Film and Television

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

States of Weightlessness: Cosmonauts in Film and Television

Article excerpt

Representations of cosmonauts on film and television are as shaped by the genre of tragedy as they are true to the history of Soviet-Russian space travel. Tragedy dominates both narrative and documentary forms. The fortune of the cosmonaut is tied to the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union: fated to command clunky, machine-age technologies, the cosmonaut is isolated in space and driven into madness and filth. American and Russian films alike make the cosmonaut's existence a troubled one, as he struggles with antiquated technology in the Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon (Bay US 1998), or is forgotten by history in the Russian mockumentary Pervye na Lune (First on the Moon; Fedorchenko Russia 2005). While these films turn the tragic history of cosmonautics into comedy, the Polish documentary Stan niewazkosci (State of Weightlessness; Drygas Poland 1994) creates a melancholy picture of the experience of human beings in outer space through interviews with cosmonauts themselves. The film reveals that the aesthetic appeal of cosmonautic tragedy also dramatises anxieties about the human body's relationship to technology and the universe. This article examines how cosmonaut characters play out both historical and cosmological anxieties.

In Armageddon, lone cosmonaut Lev (Peter Stormare) mans the dated Mir space station, where a bevy of Hollywood stars have stopped off to refuel their space shuttle. Characters played by Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Owen Wilson are among the crew of the shuttle, who are destined to save the world from an asteroid that is about to destroy life on Earth. Harry Stamper (Willis) leads a team of misfit oil drillers who will plant a nuclear bomb deep within the comet. They must stop at Mir to refuel, where Lev appears dishevelled and somewhat stoned. The mission director, Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), warns the Americans that 'the Russian space station has been up there for eleven years. Most of us don't even have cars that old. The cosmonaut aboard that tin can has been aboard for eighteen months. Alone. So don't be surprised if he's a little off.' Lev may well have been in space since the end of the Cold War. He mutters that his Uncle was 'the genius of my family. He used to work for a big bomb factory, used to make the bit on the bomb, the thing that finds New York or Washington, you know?' It is left to Oscar (Owen Wilson) to inform Lev that America won the Cold War, and that he is 'so sorry for all the upheaval and strife in your country. Man, that must be tough up here with the loneliness, but I want you to know that up here there are no Russians and there are no Americans, we're just spacemen.'

It is Soviet-Russian technology that fails in this part of the film, as a lever comes apart and fuel spills throughout Mir's labyrinthine corridors. Mir explodes, Hollywood's finest only just escaping in their shuttle. It is not until near the end of the film that Lev is allowed to demonstrate that low-tech travel in space has its advantages. As the astronauts are attempting to leave, the space shuttle engines refuse to fire, turning over like an old car engine. The shuttle's co-pilot, Jennifer Watts (Jessica Steen), yells at Lev to move away from the faulty part, 'You do not know the component', but he responds by hitting it with a hammer, telling her 'American component, Russian component, all made in Taiwan'. The engines fire, and the cosmonaut's tragic place as a symbol of failed nationhood is redeemed by this comedy of bootstrapping solutions to hightech problems.

The redemption of the cosmonaut also takes place in Deep Impact (Leder US 1998). While Armageddon is a decidedly accelerated cut-up of jingoistic if not ironic Americana, Deep Impact pastiches just three Hollywood genres - political thriller, teen romance and action adventure - in a family-friendly drama. Released the same year as Armageddon, Deep Impact is also about a space shuttle mission that wants to save the world from an approaching comet. …

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