Interstellar (2014) is a space travel film about love, family, and relationships. Cooper travels into space on a mission to save humanity from ecological disaster; as a result of his space travel he becomes estranged from his daughter. Later, he is able to reconcile his relationship with her, and start a new life on a distant planet. The visual glamour, and danger, of space travel is a backdrop for exploring love: when people are separated by great distance, love remains a powerful force.

The Martian (2015) begins with a violent sandstorm, on the surface of Mars, and in the emergency evacuation Mark Watney is left behind. His colleagues escape to a safe orbit; he must survive in a harsh environment, and rely on his ingenuity to survive. This is a story that focuses on one man’s determination and courage. It’s a celebration of self-belief — man’s ability to solve his problems.

NASA’s 1968 Moon landing is often cited as a high point of US capability and technical power. Today, this supremacy is questioned. Commentators argue the US is in relative decline, that China is overtaking it. In Interstellar American decline is highlighted by the cancellation of NASA’s space programme; the nation’s priority is feeding itself. The dream of space exploration has fallen out of favour; farmers have a higher social status than astronauts.

Interstellar is a last hurrah for grandiose space travel; an affirmation that America can be great again. All this requires, the story suggests, is vision and confidence. In The Martian US capability is also questioned when NASA calls on the Chinese for help. But the orders of a cautious senior management are countermanded by the crew, when they agree on a risky plan to save Mark Watney. The plan involves lowering the orbit of their large spacecraft to meet his makeshift escape rocket. One tiny miscalculation and they could crash to the planet’s surface.

The plan’s success is a celebration of American audacity, and a reaffirmation of American ‘can do’ attitude. Mark Watney’s resilience and ingenuity echoes the pioneering spirit of the Old West. To survive, he must adapt broken technology and repurpose it to build new things. This spirit echoes the theme of the classic space travel television series Star Trek which emphasised the Captain’s problem solving skills, often solving the dilemmas of entire worlds in a single episode by relying on his courage and intellectual creativity. In Interstellar it’s the physicality of space — low and zero gravity — that becomes the focus, in much the same way as Gravity (2013); while in Star Trek it’s the intellectual tricks and mind games the Captain plays on his opponents.

The Captain in Star Trek has Spock as his helper and friend. Cooper has a minimalist-inspired robot TARS, who helps him and acts as a comic foil. Mark’s challenge is surviving alone, and while he does have some limited communication with earth, he is denied a helper.

Human isolation in Interstellar and The Martian is emphasised through the context of hostile, and vast, landscapes: martian terrain, ocean planets, and ice-worlds. These harsh environments demonstrate human vulnerability in context to the natural world. With the odds stacked against survival in this terrain, Cooper’s and Mark’s courage echoes the frontier spirit of the American Old West. Space, and the planetary landscapes, take on a metaphysical feel in Interstellar, but they remain a material challenge, and a physical threat, in The Martian.