ESA’s ‘ambitious’ step into science fiction for Rosetta

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The European Space Agency’s first foray into science fiction, in the form of a short film entitled Ambition that promotes the Rosetta mission, may herald a new way in which science outreach can be conducted.

The five-minute film, which premiered last Friday in London as part of the British Film Institute’s ‘Days of Fear and Wonder’ science fiction season, stars Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillan and actress Aisling Franciosi as a pair of ‘post humans’ in the far future remembering the ‘historic’ Rosetta mission – “Comets [were] so enchanting that we were to catch one, a staggeringly ambitious plan,’ says Gillan’s character. Directed by Tomek Bagiński, with special effects by Platige Image, Ambition looks slick and is entertaining while aiming for high concept. The whiz-bang of the special effects and the star power of the actors somewhat masks the film’s one main flaw, which is the air of self-importance that characterises it, presenting Rosetta as a historically crucial mission and a turning point in our exploration of space. While certainly an important mission, for planetary scientists and especially for the European Space Agency, the hyperbole – Rosetta has not ‘caught’ a comet in the sense of capturing one – does feel like the film is overstating Rosetta’s mission. Of course it is a publicity vehicle for both ESA and Rosetta so a little exuberant hyperbole is expected and the film is still an enjoyable way of spreading the message about Rosetta’s mission to a much wider audience.

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Yet Ambition’s ambition, if you will pardon the pun, is not to win Oscars and Baftas, but to usher in a new way of communicating science to the public. For far too have long space agencies and scientific organisations ignored science fiction and vice versa. With the ability now to create stunning special effects for reasonable cost, it is possible to recreate on screen the stunning vistas of space and tell the science by telling a story. Expect to see more films like this in the coming years, aimed at pulling more and more people into the excitement and wonder of space exploration and science in general. In an ideal world, Rosetta would create enough interest on its own without having to resort to science fiction films to spread the message, and exploring the reasons why the public in general have apathy for exciting missions such as Rosetta could fill another entire essay, but as one of the special effects team says in the ‘Making of’ video, “Mankind sends a probe into space to catch a comet and land on it, and we need a great director, film and actors to convince people this is interesting.”

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Ambition is therefore a true pioneer and as the style and tone of such films are honed and finessed by space agencies and the filmmakers, maybe one day we will see them winning those Oscars and Baftas. As for Ambition? One cynic in the front row at the premier screening wondered whether people would feel let down in the short film and want much more after the hype of the deliberately mysterious one-minute trailer that appeared online at the beginning of October. Yet just by asking that question it would suggest that they had missed the point of Ambition: the truth is that the rest of the story is already playing out, around a distant comet out beyond the orbit of Mars, where a lone orbiting spacecraft and its single lander are getting the closest look at a comet that we have ever had.

You can watch Ambition below, and also view the ‘Making of’.