The Womanhood of Space Cinema

We look at the intrinsic link between womanhood and space that filmmakers often create.

From Stanley Kubrick’s revolutionary 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Alfonso Cuarón’s digitally and visually ambitious Gravity (2013) and the Alien-s and Martian-s that exist around them, it’s clear filmmakers like going to space.

In fact, since Cuarón’s space drama there has been a noticeable hike in Hollywood stars going to space. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt journeyed to zero gravity in last year’s Passengers; Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey tried it out in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar; and Matt Damon has gone to space three times with Nolan’s film, 2013’s Elysium, and 2015’s The Martian.

The rise of Hollywood space movies has brought with it a noticeable trend: the woman who saves the day, and/or humanity. However, attached to this women-saving heroism is another, slightly more unsettling and questionable position: the intricate link between womanhood, images of rebirth, and the zero-gravity world.

Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the two films that followed remains one of the most famous examples of a bad-ass woman in space. Not only does Ripley follow her gut, give out orders, and kill aliens, but she also remains the dominant force in a crew mostly full of men.  And it’s men who suffer from Scott’s decision to create a link between space and the biological factors that come with being of the female sex.

When the monstrous baby alien bursts through John Hurt’s chest, Scott not-so-subtly creates imagery of birth, the “child” coming from the stomach. With the ship’s computer being called Mother and increasing references to birth trauma (and, arguably, rape, with the director creating a nouveau space-based Home Invasion genre), it’s clear Alien unsettles its audiences, and its male characters, in its very portrayal of images surrounding womanhood.

In particular, these recurring images of birth have appeared in later Alien sequels and prequels, Kubrick’s 2001, Cuarón’s Gravity, and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016). In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character Dr. Ryan Stone is figuratively reborn as she curls up alone in her spacecraft, her fetal position mirroring the roundness of the world behind her. The image juxtaposes with the death of the protagonist’s daughter, connoting the need for survival that encapsulates the film after Matt Kowalski’s (George Clooney) death.

It’s survival that becomes Bullock’s main mission. As Bullock realizes she can only save herself, the difficulty of surviving becomes clear. When Bullock arrives back on Earth, the director provides another metaphor for rebirth: water. She has survived, and that is enough.

Whilst Adams does not go to space in Arrival, she does travel to a version of it. The alien world of the heptapods that Adams frequently visits is full of fog and dense space. As Adams’ character, a linguist called Louise Banks, has to decipher the heptapods’ new language, Adams traverses deeper and deeper into their world.

Arrival contains very little action, and the difference in action between Adams’ and Weaver’s characters emphasizes how far space movies have come, moving from showing the physicality and action of Ripley to exploring the internal world of Adams’ character. Through nonlinear images of Adams’ life, the heptapods let the linguist into their secret. And through Adams, the heptapods make their message clear, that message being the power of language.

Using circular imagery to connect a fetus and the Earth, 2001 most notably begins images of rebirth in space. With the EVA Pods all having female names, Kubrick extends these messages of birth and knowledge to biblical references. (Notably referenced in Pixar’s charming Wall-E).With contemporary space films continuing to construct a connection between the idea of motherhood and space, it leaves this writer asking what the directors’ intentions behind their imagery are.

Are they trying to communicate the ability to be reborn, the expansive yet limited knowledge we have of the world that leaves us back in the same space, a la 2001?Villeneuve’s Arrival is more of a film about motherhood than it is about space, with Adams’ character, through the alien haptapods, spending the film attempting to bond with her bereaved child.

Finally, what about Gravity’s depiction of dealing with grief by being reborn in the limitless, unknowable expanse that is space? Is Cuarón depicting space as a kind of womb; a place in which a person prepares for the world that awaits them? Or is it simply a metaphor for the grief Bullock’s character feels inside of her? Either way, she ends up in the space place as Adams and Kubrick’s space baby: back on Earth.

Sinead McCausland: @sineadsmonde Freelance writer based in the UK.