DAVID BOWIE / NASA
By Joan Pons
The dialogue in this section will be very easy to imagine because we’ve all heard it before and embraced it through the lyrics of Space Oddity: Ground control and Major Tom chattering away in their technical-existentialist-interspace banter, “Houston we have a problem” dramatic turn of events and final poetic floating-in-space coda. If someone out there is too young to have heard the song, remember the video that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shot a couple of years ago (I’m sure one of the twenty six million visits it has in YouTube is yours). The more veteran readers we’ll know it for sure, even in its very early Spanish bizarre version by the Hermanos Calatrava. But, just in case, let’s recover this monolith of pop history, c’mon:
The three links above belong, in order, to the 1967 proto-music video version (quite unknown), the famous 1972 one and a remix made in 2015 with images of the film Gravity; the latter, despite obvious, couldn’t be more fitting: all throughout Alfonso Cuarón’s movie I was humming to myself the verse “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”.
In fact, I would say that Gravity is not the only instance of a clear correspondence between recent Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters and Bowie’s old hits. Leaving aside other stimulating and equally recent but more lo-fi proposals, like Moon by Duncan Jones (the son of… yes… Bowie himself), we could argue that a film like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was quite Starman: Matthew McConaughey trying to reach the Earth could be summarised as “there’s a starman waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. And Ridley Scott’s The Martian is crying out for Life on Mars to be included on the film… although the song that in fact does appear and can be heard from beginning to end, lost among the annoying cotton candy-like underlining of the soundtrack composed by Gregson-Williams and the surprising classic disco tunes revisited, is… Starman! (Oops, it seems I got the matching game wrong there!).
Somehow, current Hollywood sci-fi (at least the sort dwelling on the current challenges of the space race, the role of human beings before the immensity of the cosmos and the big questions of fanta-science) is fulfilling the same role for mainstream audiences as, a while ago, Bowie’s songs: they offer a pop imagery for the questions we ask ourselves when looking up at the stars. It’s true that during the years in which Bowie released his songs there were already movies similar to the ones mentioned earlier, also based on scientific speculation and with their eyes fixed on space. But today’s Hollywood insists in using a cosmos-entertainment binary, a set of aesthetics, a “you’re going to go mental with this” attitude and a simplified discourse for the masses (if anybody is expecting avant la lettre rigueur or solid answers to the big questions, better go somewhere else: in any case, should they provide them, we’d probably wouldn’t understand them anyway!) that are, basically, pop.
Those Bowie songs allowed any inhabitant of the Earth to daydream for a few minutes with the idea of the space trip, with zero gravity, with life in other planets; they provided a more or less superficial, more or less profound revelation of the insignificance of the human being with respect to the universe and, once finished, one could move on to other things. They come in a hummable and danceable format that triggers our imagination for a brief lapse of time. Exactly the same (although in this case we’re talking about a couple of hours, ok) happening with Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian: they are limited impact stimuli that allow us to feel the dizziness of the big unanswered questions as if we were visiting an amusement park.
Wait a minute! Did I just say: “limited impact”? Well, I take it back. Maybe the reflexive trace that these films and songs leave on the general public is relatively limited, but the formal impact they subject the average spectator to is definitely high. And that, undoubtedly, leaves a much more relevant sediment than it would seem. Our perception is altered when we listen to the special effects (prodigies of stereo sound) and fantasy orchestrations of Bowie’s songs. In the same way, when we watch Gravity, Interstellar or The Martian we are exposed to a series of audiovisual resources as rarely seen in mainstream films as having the continuity completely disappearing and not knowing what’s up and what’s down, left or right (things that happen with zero gravity!); shooting a whole scene in complete silence, without even ambience sounds, or daring to translate an inter-dimensional corridor into images. The fact that all this repertoire of prodigies of cinematographic language is available for the price of a multiplex cinema ticket and that the cinemagoers don’t even find them weird is a landmark of audiovisual R+D (+a) that shouldn’t be overlooked.
If NASA has already left a legacy of 6,300 patents in science, technology and let’s call it “daily life things” that today are part of our everyday lives (Velcro, unbreakable lens for our glasses, insoles, disposable nappies…), it would only be fair that the cultural heritage of these songs and blockbusters should, in a few years’ time, be valued with the same recognition and admiration.