The science fiction genre is indeed a fascinating one and one that continues to inspire many including myself. However, after a screening of Gravity, it began to dawn on me how popular one particular plot seems to be in these kinds of films. There's a few of these common "stock plots' as you could say which pop up a lot in specific genres. With horror you have the recurring plot of "teenagers get stalked by an invincible psycho who wants to kill them all" (which basically describes Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm St. and who knows how many other films). With the romantic comedy you have "guy meets girl, they break up, guy gets girl back".
Now, let me describe a scenario to you. A group of astronauts are in space, on some sort of mission. Everything is going to plan when suddenly something unexpected happens that poses a danger. The crew are stranded, and unable to get home (at least for the moment), trying to find a way to survive, some of them possibly dying as the narrative progresses. You might have been thinking of a specific film, but this basic scenario could describe the plot of Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M, Conquest of Space, Forbidden Planet, Marooned, The Silent Star (A.K.A. First Spaceship to Venus or Der schweigende Stern), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Dark Star, Alien, Event Horizon, Solaris, Sunshine, Cargo, Prometheus, Gravity, and Europa Report.
There are variations in just what the unexpected issue is (ranging from space phenomena to hidden agendas to members of the crew simply going mad), how the crew are stranded, and the ultimate outcome (sometimes the crew survives, sometimes they make it out with a few casualties, and sometimes none of them get out) but essentially they all still fit into this category. It isn't even strictly science fiction, since Apollo 13 (which was based on historical events) follows this plot.
It is curious how popular this particular plot has become, and how it can be taken in so many different directions one might not even notice it to be the same plot. Heck, I could argue it goes even further back than the films I listed with stories like Ray Bradbury's Kaleidoscope (centered on a group of astronauts left adrift in Earth's orbit after their rocket is destroyed, which was even cited as inspiration for the ending of Dark Star) or The Long Rain (about a group of astronauts who get stranded on Venus after their ship crashes and their search for shelter... yes, I know it gets Venus wrong on so many levels but that's beside the point). Even I've written a few stories fitting into this general category.
This leaves me to wonder what it is about this type of plot that makes it so popular. Why is it that films about the crew facing unexpected disasters tend to be more interesting than just a story in which everything goes to plan? Well, as interesting as it might be to see a film simply depicting the day-to-day lives of astronauts, space is very dangerous. You don't hear too much about accidents these days, largely because NASA specializes in preparing for thousands of potentially dangerous situations, but once in a while unforseen accidents do happen.
You also don't need to dig too deep to find other unprecedented disasters in the history of space exploration. Apollo 13 would be yet another good example, when a technical fault prevented the crew from reaching the moon and they had to improvise in order to get back to Earth. Many people forget about the less fortunate crew of Apollo 1, who died in a cabin fire before it could even be launched due to a combination of several design flaws, including problems with the door that prevented them getting out. Later, in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its launch, killing the entire crew.
So as we can see from the past, you certainly can't deny that there is a lot of danger to be found in space travel. We may have learned what we can from the mistakes that caused those particular disasters and made sure to prevent them happening again, but the point still stands. No matter how much you prepare, once in a while something you never considered may happen.
This brings us back to the "Space Disaster" film. It's always about something people weren't prepared for. Nobody anticipated the respected General Merritt to go crazy and try to sabotage the mission, or that miscalculation which almost required a man to stay behind, or Freeman Lowell taking his orders to destroy the forests so hard, or that two different orders given to HAL would conflict with each other and cause him to malfunction, or those rockets failing to work when they were needed to re-enter Earth's atmosphere, or the missile strike to take out one satellite to cause debris to damage others initiating a chain reaction that would threaten any human activity in orbit.
So why is it that seeing disasters in space are far more exciting than things going as planned? Well, it's hard to say, but as we can see from history itself, space is dangerous, and movies like Destination Moon, Conquest of Space, Marooned, and Gravity help us to remember that (though not always in the most accurate ways). In that sense, one could argue that it shows the psychological experiences of what the brave men and women who venture into space have to experience on a day-to-day basis. Even if it's not a regular occurrence in real life, these kinds of films constantly remind us what could happen even with extensive caution and preparation. If there is a lesson to be taken from films such as these, it is that no matter how extensively you prepare yourself, you must always be ready to face the unexpected.