Friday, January 11, 2019

Aquaman: Is Space No Longer Enough?

Even as China's Chang'e-4 moon mission begins to explore the Dark Side as an extension of previous research by other nations and in anticipation of manned landings by Taikonauts, skepticism seems to be growing about extraplanetary plans involving human presence.  Recently former astronaut William Anders, who took the iconic "Earthrise" photo while in Apollo 8 lunar orbit, remarked that the view of our living planet struck him as a stark contrast with the barrenness of the inorganic moon.  He has lately been outspoken in his criticism of NASA's priorities in putting "boots on the moon" as a prelude to colonizing Mars.  Anders' crewmate and commander on the mission, Frank Borman, has reportedly voiced similar views regarding unreasonable expectations for our species in hostile and exorbitantly expensive space environments.  One can suppose that this prise de conscience on Borman's part is not just a recent change:  he turned down the chance to take Scott Armstrong's "one small step" in order to work on airline problems closer to home and enjoy the pleasures of aircraft building and ranching.  These are not just theorists or speculators, but men who have been out there.

Having just seen Aquaman, John and I were struck by a certain similarity in general views reflected in this engaging and well-done film, which takes place entirely on and under the Earth's solid/liquid surface. An ongoing theme in Aquaman is the failure of Atlantean technology on a wide level.  This is not new in portrayals of Atlantis, if we consider George Pal's 1961 Atlantis, the Lost Continent as an example.  There we already encountered Atlantean hubris gone wrong in the form of biological tinkering and destructive lasers anchored in a hierarchical, slave-driven economy.  The wonders of civilization quickly prove to be a dangerous illusion that can only be dispeled by the obliteration of the very ground it stands on.  Aquaman sets out from a common point of departure but carries the projection further into the 21st century.  Post-Atlantean humans have not only followed the technological bad examples of the Atlanteans, but have enlarged the assault by poisoning the Atlantean seas with pollution.  Naturally, the lords of the deep respond with a massive tsunami that vomits up a tide of plastic and debris onto the land, along with the mighty navies humans have constructed in their arrogant attempt to conquer the seas.

What, one may ask, does this fishy tale have to do with the conquest of space?  The answers are not far below the waterline.  Deep ocean and deep space have always, after all, represented the twin abysses that confront the human imagination, one up and one down.  We are, as Pascal so brilliantly posited, trapped between the two infinities, failing to grasp the dimensions or the lessons of either of them.  As De Gama, Magellan, Columbus, Gosnold, Cabot, or Cartier set off across the water, NASA, Roscosmos, CNSA, ESA, JAXA and others now contemplate the colonization of distant lands in the form of whole new planets.  Once again, the greed for rare materials and untold riches underlies the quest.  Yet these new worlds offer no lush forests, rich harvests, exploitable natives, or even air to breathe.  This time, colonization means the onus of supplying everything is on our own shoulders.  No Squantos or Dahomean queens are waiting to comply with our demands and needs.  The differences between the objectives and the place we are leaving, despite the still unsolved and growing problems of the latter, are mind-bogglingly daunting.  This is as obvious to the hybrid Arthur Curry as it was to Anders and Borman in Apollo 8.

In the film, the answer, the ultimate power, the healing holy grail lies in the form of the ancestral trident which is all that lies between the human race and annihilation, as Curry/Aquaman seeks to reconcile his dual natures, his own genetic two abysses of surface humanity and Atlantean DNA.  His own spirit quest requres that he descend into the depths below the depths to challenge an unspeakable monster.  This hero journey, falling within the parameters of Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces, recalls other journeys of extraterrestrial sci fi, not least of which is the plunge into the Gungan suboceans in Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace.  Visually, the reverberation is undeniable.  And here once more, one encounters a transition from the limits of science to the arcane powers of the supernatural.  Like the ambiguous influences of the Force, the previously evil might of the Trident morphs into a life-saving, beneficial element in the hands of the Chosen One who manifests himself to claim his true birthright and redeem humanity in the process.

The pre-apocalyptic situation of the human race is as apparent in Aquaman as it is in Elon Musk's urgent desire to transplant the seeds of a dying civilization to Mars.  However, our astronauts often remind us that what we still have is more precious than the shimmering image of a reconstructed existence abroad that seems to offer, in the words of Vauvenargues, the products of a perfected civilization.   Intuitively, we sense that technology alone never has and never will provide a worry-free world, whether the one we live on now or any within reach above or below.  Superstitious fantasy may not suffice to bestow on us the Trident we need to save our species, but the powers of the Imagination  just might, assuming that we can apply them in a forsightful and humane way that prevents irrational tech from sinking us where we stand.

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