Lightyear, the latest offering from Pixar, takes us into space and reveals the backstory to the much-loved Toy Story spaceman. Framed as the movie that inspired Andy’s Buzz figure from the original 1995 film, it is effectively a movie within a movie. For the duration of the mission, we are Andy – stars in our eyes, and drawn along through the thrills of outer space.
Yet within those layers of unreality is a man who is very familiar with the nuts and bolts of actual space travel. Tim Peake – the first British European Space Agency astronaut to visit the International Space Station – makes a cameo voice appearance, as the voice of launch control, for the UK release.
As Lightyear hits cinemas, Peake offered The Big Issue an insight into the things that the movies get right about space travel… as well as a couple of things that made him wince.
Star Wars and Gravity capture the excitement and beauty of leaving our atmosphere
As a kid, cinema was a big part of what inspired Peake’s journey into the cosmos. “I’ve been inspired by many movies about space,” he says. “I mean, right from the early days when I loved watching Star Wars. These kind of space-based movies had a lot of influence over my life.”
As a big family blockbuster, Peake says Lightyear can inspire the space explorers of the future. “Lightyear gets loads of things right about space,” he adds. “On the grand scale of things, it gets that sense of adventure, of going out and pushing boundaries. That’s everything that the space industry is about.”
Hopefully, the youngsters who watch Buzz today will be off to Mars in the not-too-distant future, he adds. “Where Buzz is so inspirational is that we’re not just talking about going off into low earth orbit. You’re talking about travelling to other planets, actually landing on the surface and exploring.
“That’s what we’re going to see astronauts doing in the next few years. We’ll see crews going off to spend six months, a year living on the surface of the moon. They’re the Space Rangers of the future.
“And then soon after that, we’ll be exploring Mars. So there are really exciting times to come.”
Having fulfilled his ambition to escape Earth, Peake says the epic scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity are a good representation of sense of wonder he felt. “The cinematography in Gravity was brilliant. You really felt like you were up there in low Earth orbit,” he says.
It’s not an entirely positive review for the veracity of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s mission, though. “I really had to grit my teeth at a couple of points. Flying through space on a fire extinguisher? Really? There are a few moments there where you just think: no, that’s not how it’s gonna work. So there’s pluses and minuses there.”
2001: A Space Odyssey is right… you don’t want AI in charge of the airlock, but we’re already on the path to Lightyear-style robotic companion cats
Among the most chilling moments in all of sci-fi comes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when the on-board artificial intelligence, HAL, judges that the human crew are standing in the way of the mission. Refusing to follow orders, with a deadpan “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” homicidal HAL is the ultimate AI nightmare – created to aid humanity but riding roughshod over individual people.
That’s why Peake is glad the current usage of AI bears more resemblance to Sox – the robot cat that is Lightyear’s standout star – rather than HAL. Taking the shape of an outrageously cute, merch-friendly, ginger kitty, Sox acts as emotional support to Buzz.
Surprisingly, the astronauts on the ISS have a similar AI companion. “We have an emotional intelligence robot onboard the space station,” says Peake. “So it’s really funny that Lightyear is exploring that as an avenue because that’s exactly how we’re using AI on the space station.”
Though it may not have the power of life and death over its charges, astronauts do have a complicated relationship with the emotional intelligence robot. “From the very early days as a pilot, your relationship with your [human] flight surgeon is sometimes quite difficult. On the one hand, you want to be friendly and they’re there to keep you flying. But on the other hand, if you have a problem, they’re going to be the ones who ground you. And that could be career changing,” says Peake.
“In the same vein – as astronauts, when we’re talking to psychologists and this emotional support thing… you know, do we really want an artificially intelligent robot who’s analysing my voice, my pitch, my rhythm to determine whether I’m stressed and angry? And whether I need to take a break? It’s quite invasive in your world.”
Lightyear nails that complexity “brilliantly”, he says. “When Buzz first opens the box, and Sox wants to play a game, Buzz is kind of, ‘I’m tired, I just want to go to bed.’ But he actually ends up having this wonderful relationship with Sox. The development of these artificially intelligent devices could end up being the Sox of the future, which we will lean heavily on.”
The view from the Millennium Falcon is like looking out from the International Space Station
Though the wi-fi on the Space Station is reserved for scientific and mission-critical purposes, the crew has access to a terabyte’s worth of movies and TV shows. You can even – should you want – watch astronauts be picked off one by one by Alien as you sit mere centimetres from space, where no one can hear you scream. (Peake never felt the urge.)
However, when he first arrived in the ISS in 2015, Peake’s first weekend aboard did include a preview screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
“It was amazing,” he recalls. “But you know, it wasn’t so much the watching of the movie. When you watch a movie, you’re engrossed in it. I remember watching the movie and not feeling that much different, despite the fact that you’re floating in weightlessness.
“When it felt really weird was when the movie stopped. I floated and turned round and there’s the cupola [the dome-shaped viewing window aboard the ISS]. It looks like the Millennium Falcon, and there’s Earth. You’re not walking out of the cinema and getting into your car and talking about movies while you’re driving home. No, you are actually there – orbiting and looking down on the planet. It is an IMAX right in front of you.”
The weird time stretching effects of relativity in Interstellar and Lightyear? Those are real
Among the odder conclusions of Einstein’s theory of relativity concerns time. Unsurprisingly, once sci-fi writers got a hold of a theory that could add a sheen of authenticity to time travel, they were – to put it mildly – keen. But who has handled this counter-intuitive concept well on celluloid?
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar gets the thumbs up from Peake. “Interstellar had some great concepts,” he says. “You’re talking about event horizons, black holes, and then you’ve got Einstein’s general relativity and gravitational time dilation in there.”
Gravitational time dilation means that time moves relatively more slowly if you are in a strong gravitational field. In Interstellar, the tragic potential of an extreme time dilation is explored as the crew finds themselves on a planet near a super massive black hole. One hour for them is equal to seven years back home – so as a day goes past on the mission, everyone they’ve ever loved on Earth has lived and died in their absence.
In Lightyear, Buzz is hit by a similar effect, but this time it’s special relativity that causes the time dilation. As Buzz pushes to get closer to the speed of light, he ages much slower than his friends. “It’s a really brave thing to take that on in a movie, especially one that’s designed for a younger audience,” says Peake, “but it does so well at that.”
Sometimes real-life astronauts narrate their missions, but they probably won’t do it out loud like Captain Kirk or Buzz Lightyear
As our guide to the Star Trek universe, Captain James T Kirk often narrates the action for his Captain’s log (and our benefit). It’s a habit to which his animated heir, Buzz Lightyear, is also prone – much to the amusement of his fellow Space Rangers. Buzz’s excuse is that it helps him focus on the job at hand. But do real astronauts ever feel tempted to indulge in a self-narrating monologue?
“Ha! When you are doing something that’s very choreographed, you are kind of narrating to yourself, though you’re not voicing it,” admits Peake. “I’m thinking here of a spacewalk. Everything is very choreographed. Internally, you’re making sure that you do everything step by step.
“Spacewalking is really challenging,” Peake continues, with remarkable understatement, “because on the one hand, you need to have a little bit of thought about what’s coming next, but you must never lose sight of what you are doing right now. Because if you start thinking too much about other things, then you forget to put your tether on, you let go of the space station… and before you know it, you’re off.”
With just a space suit between them and the vacuum of space, the astronaut who finds themselves untethered from their ship doesn’t really stand a chance. “That’s pretty much there to forefront of your mind for the entire eight hours of a spacewalk,” says Peake. And so – just like in Gravity, Star Wars and Lightyear – there’s one very important rule: “Don’t fall off.”