Stanley Kubrick has a lot to answer for. Single-handedly, he took all the fun out of space travel. All the fun, and all the colour
Ever since the release of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, spaceships in the movies have been painted white. Or grey. Or black. Ooh, is that a hint of silver? It’s the NASA look, defined in the sixties by the Apollo missions with their black-and-white Saturn V rockets, and inherited in the eighties by the equally monochromatic Space Shuttle.
Even the Star Wars saga – with its riotous assembly of galactic cruisers and space jalopies – is hamstrung by a limited colour palette. The evil Empire has shares in a paint shop that specialises in shades of grey.
Same with the rebels. Luke flies as Red Five during the Battle of Yavin, but does that mean his X-Wing is decked out in gaudy crimson? Nope. There might be a red stripe or two under all that grime, but Luke’s interstellar hot rod is as colourless as the TIE fighters he’s up against. Sure, they pushed the pigment envelope with the prequel trilogy, but who remembers that, right?
Meanwhile, the list goes on. Pick any iconic spaceship of the last forty years, then consider the paint job. The Nostromo? Light grey. The Sulaco? Dark grey. Then there’s the Rodger Young from Starship Troopers, or the Battlestar Galactica, or the Prometheus …
You get the picture.
Now everything has changed. Thanks to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, space travel just went Technicolor.
In Gunn’s film, the spaceships shine like mechanical insects, wasp-striped and butterfly-winged. Peter Quill’s Milano is a confection of vivid blue and orange. The Nova Corps Starblasters are angry yellow and black. As for the many worlds explored by these many-hued craft – they’re simply dazzling. Space itself – that traditionally black interstellar void – is drenched with more colour than an exploding paint factory.
I love the exuberant hues of Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only do they overturn years of space-going sterility, but they also hark back to the science fiction paperbacks I devoured as a teenager. My favourite authors were Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven, whose books boasted cover illustrations by Chris Foss and Peter Jones respectively.
Foss specialises in giant, gaudy spaceships, each one perforated by about a billion tiny windows. His vehicles were huge and outlandish, bulging with unrestrained geometry and belching out entire fog banks of glowing exhaust gas. Jones’s artwork is just a riot, with one primary hue crashing against another as funky aliens fired unfathomable weapons into a collision of eccentric hardware.
Colour, colour, colour.
For years, that colour has been trapped on the covers of those battered old paperbacks. Now, at last, it’s beginning to find its way on to the silver screen. The first hint of this new trend came with James Cameron’s Avatar, whose alien world of Pandora was a rainbow brought to life. Yet, even in Cameron’s universe, the spaceships were still grey.
There was good reason for that. Thematically, the human technology in Avatar is cold and heartless, while the jungle inhabited by the native Na’vi – despite its many hazards – is warm and inviting. A perfect example of colour as subtext.
Guardians of the Galaxy is different. In Gunn’s film, vivid colours are packed into every corner of every frame. Colour is what this galaxy is all about. It’s no coincidence that, tucked away in the credits at the end of the movie, you’ll find a host of talented concept and matte artists whose portfolios are also bulging with science fiction paperback covers. Artists like Fred Gambino and – you guessed it – Chris Foss.
Are we finally witnessing the end of Kubrick’s legacy? Has James Gunn opened the flood gates of a reservoir filled not with water, but all the coloured paints you could ever wish to see? One thing’s for sure: with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 already on the starting blocks, we’re set to be dazzled for some time to come.
Read the definitive behind-the-scenes story of the visual effects of Guardians of the Galaxy in the October issue of Cinefex, available to pre-order now!
2001: A Space Odyssey photograph copyright © 1968, 2001 by Turner Entertainment Company. Star Wars photograph copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd. and courtesy of ILM. Guardians of the Galaxy photographs copyright © 2014 by Marvel Entertainment.