Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Into thin air . . . VERY thin air

Movies set in outer space have a built-in method of creating tension: the ever-present threat of exposure to a near-vacuum. There seems to be little consensus, though, among the films that exploit this danger as to what really happens when a body is exposed to such conditions.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey
After retrieving the body of a crew member whose oxygen line was cut during an EVA, astronaut Dave Bowman returns to his ship only to be locked out of the shuttle bay by the ship's HAL-9000 supercomputer. Unable to convince HAL to open the door, Dave manually unlocks a hatch and prepares to be thrown from his shuttle pod into the vacuum of the empty airlock — without a space helmet.

Length of exposure:
  • approximately seventeen seconds
  • Dave bounces around a bit in zero gravity while holding his breath, but otherwise shows no symptoms of exposure.
  • Dave survives the experience, then suits up to confront the homicidal HAL.

Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall
After activating a mysterious machine deep beneath the surface of Mars, Douglas Quaid is blown to the planet surface and exposed to the thin, oxygen-starved Martian atmosphere.

Length of exposure:
  • approximately three minutes
  • Quaid's face, neck, and tongue swell and his eyes bulge almost out of his head as he thrashes around on the ground.
  • The machine begins to generate massive quantities of oxygen and a breathable atmosphere quickly forms. Quaid's face returns to normal, and despite some traces of blood there are no visible signs of permanent damage.

Event Horizon (1997)
Event Horizon
Justin, a crew member apparently possessed by the evil spirit haunting a derelict spaceship, steps into an airlock and begins the automated and irreversible process of opening the external door.

Length of exposure:
  • approximately 104 seconds
  • The veins in the Justin's forearms bulge and eventually tear through the skin. As blood spurts from his eyes and mouth, he convulses and loses blood pressure rapidly.
  • The ship's captain, outside the ship at the time and wearing a spacesuit, catches Justin as he floats into space and returns him to the ship. The ship's doctor patches him up offscreen and later states, "He won't be pretty, but he should live."

Mission to Mars (2000)
Mission to Mars
During a spacewalk in orbit around Mars, mission leader Woody Blake misses his target and begins to fall toward the planet. Realizing nothing can be done to save him and not wanting his wife to die trying, Woody removes his helmet.

Length of exposure:
  • two seconds until death, indefinite exposure afterwards
  • Air escapes from Woody's helmet and appears to crystallize as Woody's face freezes instantly.
  • Woody's lifeless and frozen body continues to fall toward Mars while his crewmates watch in disbelief.

Outland (1981)
A worker at a mining facility on Jupiter's moon Io inexplicably locks himself in an airlock-protected elevator. The lift lowers the man to the moon's surface, shedding air pressure as it goes.

Length of exposure:
  • at least 47 seconds
Effects & Outcome:
  • While we're not shown the gruesome demise, we do see the final result: the elevator door opens to reveal the man on his back, dead, with what look like intestines on the outside of his body and a laceration on his leg. Blood is splattered over the elevator walls.


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