Actor and avid sailor Sterling Hayden once said that no film has ever really captured the true essence of sea travel. On the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, it occurs to me that the same thing could be said about cinematic depictions of space travel. For the most part, movies set in space use it as a backdrop for stories about aliens or Earth threatening phenomenons (or Earth threatening aliens). Even if you discount schlock flicks about hot women on Venus or the Star Wars/Star Trek genre, it’s hard to find a space movie that focuses on the mechanics of the journey itself.
When I was eight-years-old, my roster of heroes predictably included professional athletes such as pitcher Mickey Lolich, who led the Detroit Tigers to their 1968 World Series victory, or “Mr. Hockey,” Gordie Howe. But also prominently on that list was the crew of Apollo 11: Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
A grainy, Super 8 movie records my family’s backyard barbecue on the afternoon of July 20, 1969. Aunts, uncles and older cousins freely consumed hot dogs, hamburgers, potato chips and cigarettes. The women, with bee-hive coifs, wore either dresses or capris. The men, clad in striped shorts and sandals, had their hair closely cropped. This was a typical outing but for the fact that most of the guests had clustered around a black-and-white television set that my father, with the help of three extension cords, had placed in the middle of the patio. Its rabbit ear antennas creating an extra obstacle, the TV was balanced precariously on a wooden folding chair.
In 1969 all three of the existing national television networks provided wall-to-wall coverage of the Apollo 11 mission. With only hours to go before Armstrong and Aldrin would touch down on the moon, Walter Cronkite watched as Wally Schirra used small plastic models to demonstrate how the command module and lunar lander maneuvered in space. NBC ran the audio of astronauts talking to Mission Control under an animation simulating shots from space (a necessity due to the lack of a live video feed). ABC had a man suspended from elastic cords bouncing around the studio to show what walking on the moon might be like. By today’s standards, the production values were pretty lame, but everyone was riveted by all of it.
After the Eagle had landed, it would be another few hours before the astronauts actually left the craft to venture out onto the lunar surface. Bedtime rules were suspended so that my brother and I could stay up extra late to watch the first moonwalk. The broadcast was blurry, black-and-white and, for a few frustrating seconds, upside down. But it was live. As video recording equipment wasn’t yet readily available for the great unwashed, my father stationed himself in front of the TV with his movie camera. Years after the event, he would still be kicking himself for not noticing that someone behind him had turned on a lamp. Its reflection on the glass television screen appears in his homemade kinescope.
To be perfectly frank, there was nothing intrinsically exciting about what Armstrong and Aldrin did on their lunar excursion. They basically bounced around setting up various experiments. Sure, they did talk to President Nixon. But even the coach whose team wins the Super Bowl gets a phone call from the president. The fact that they were actually doing these seemingly mundane tasks on the moon is what made it so compelling.
I’ve seldom gotten that same feeling from big screen efforts. 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably the most influential film set in space, beautifully stages its extraterrestrial maneuvers as high-tech ballets. While I love the movie (I really do), there’s an element of fantasy to the film that makes it somewhat remote from any personal reference point. I’m sure this was Stanley Kubrick’s intention, but, as such, it didn’t resonate with me in quite the same way as that poor quality moonwalk broadcast did. And then, of course, the storyline includes aliens and their influence on the origin and future of mankind.
Silent Running (1972), which featured a crew of space gripers seven years before Alien, was really an ecological message film that gave director Douglas Trumbull an excuse to show off some whiz-bang technical effects. Space Cowboys has its heart in the right place. But a crew of AARP members saving the earth from an orbiting Soviet missle platform? Please.
With that in mind, I’ve listed, in order of preference, what I think are five good examples of films that take a more grounded approach to space travel (if you pardon the oxymoron).
1. Destination Moon (1950): Sure, it’s dated and most, if not all, of the production design is laughable. For instance, the crew wears ridiculous looking magnetic boots to stay on deck in zero gravity (to be fair, Kubrick had his space travelers wearing velcro shoes for the same purpose). But as the first film to attempt a serious look at space travel, it’s required viewing. I’d even point out a scene showing the pilot of the descending ship hurriedly trying to find a smooth landing spot on the moon’s surface while running dangerously low on fuel. This dilemma was actually faced by Armstrong and Aldrin in real life.
2. Countdown (1968): It’s amazing to consider that James Caan has been in three science fiction films: Countdown, Rollerball and Alien Nation (four if you count Eraser). This early Robert Altman drama starring Caan and Robert Duvall displays none of the style that would characterize the director’s subsequent work such as MASH or McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But it is a serious take on the topic. In a last ditch effort to beat the Soviets to the moon, NASA hastily carries out a mission using a converted Gemini capsule as a lunar lander. Shot on a low budget, the cheap looking sets are a bit of distraction. And while to me the conflict between Caan and Duvall was interestingly staged, many find Countdown’s matter-of-fact approach boring. This probably explains why so many other filmmakers infuse more exotic elements into their space outings.
3. The Right Stuff (1983): This one is a mixed bag for me. I found the Tom Wolfe book superior to Philip Kaufman’s film adaptation. While the attempts at humor often seem out of place, the movie certainly captures the drama of those early Mercury missions. And the shot of the original seven astronauts walking toward the camera in their pressure suits is unquestionably part of our cultural mythology. However, while assembling a valentine to Chuck Yeager and the virtually unknown X-15 program, Kaufman engages in the sort of hype and hero worship that he simultaneously criticizes in depicting NASA’s shameless promotion of the Mercury team. That said, a Chris Matthews “thrill” does run down my leg every time I see Sam Shepard walking out of the desert alone, a plume of smoke from the wreckage of his aircraft visible in the distance.
4. Apollo 13 (1995): These last two will probably get me in trouble. I think Apollo 13 is a fine film, but to me, 1969’s similarly plotted, yet fictional, Marooned is superior.
Based on Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell’s Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, Ron Howard couldn’t have asked for a better story to tell. The fact that it really happened frees him from worrying about the audience suspending their disbelief. The production values are impeccable and Howard’s use of sets built inside of a “vomit comet” to simulate weightlessness is inspired. I’m hardly the first person to say this, but even though most people know how it’s going to turn out, Apollo 13 still manages to be a nailbiter until the very end.
My biggest complaint is that despite having great source material, Howard can’t resist the temptation to guild the lily by baking in a dramatic irony that never occurred. In Howard’s version, astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) is grounded after being exposed to the measles and replaced by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). After all hell breaks loose, Mattingly is shown playing a lead role on the ground in solving Apollo 13’s critical energy consumption problem. Thus, he ends up being the hero despite not quite having the “right stuff.” In point of fact, the person who actually devised the procedure to address the electrical issue was John Arron (Loran Dean). I’m not saying Howard didn’t have the right to exercise some dramatic license in this regard. I just think that the truth—a slide rule welding nerd saved the day—is more compelling than Mattingly’s fictional vindication.
My other complaint is Howard’s incredibly unfair depiction of the Grumman corporation, the contractor which delivered the lunar lander. In Apollo 13, whenever he’s asked about the prospects of a given LEM maneuver, the Grumman rep (Kenneth White) repeatedly covers his ass by nervously explaining that the ship was never tested for that sort of use. Actually, Grumman had anticipated a situation where the lunar landed might have to be used to tow a disabled command module. Their research into that possibility before Apollo 13 even launched and their participation with Mission Control during the crisis itself contributed greatly to the successful outcome. Sure, ever since the Reagan administration, government contractors have been viewed as self-serving opportunists (and not entirely without good reason). In the 1990’s, even then Vice President Al Gore was making the rounds on talk shows NOT to discuss the horrors of global climate change, but instead deriding wasteful government spending as evidenced by Pentagon invoices for $500 hammers. Also, the role of aerospace contractor Morton Thiokol’s faulty O-rings in causing the Challenger disaster was still fresh in people’s minds. So, I can see how Grumman was tailor-made for a “villain.” Of course, one might ask why Howard didn’t pick on Rockwell? After all, it was their command module that failed. But I digress. I’ll just reiterate that while Howard wasn’t obligated to stick only to the true history, I found the facts surrounding Grumman’s actual participation in the Apollo 13 mission a more interesting part of the story than the punch line they were reduced to for the film.
5. Marooned (1969): An even bigger injustice than those mentioned earlier occurred when Mystery Science Theater 3000 devoted an episode to Marooned. Just as the three-mile island crisis made The China Syndrome a box-office hit, had Marooned came out when the real Apollo 13 incident occurred a year later, it probably would have been a much more financially successful film. Sigh.
Attempting to return home after a five-month stint on an orbital space station, a three-man NASA crew (Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, and Gene Hackman) is stranded in orbit when the retro rockets on their Apollo style craft fail to fire. With no solution to the problem forthcoming, and the capsule’s oxygen running out, NASA Flight Director Charles Keith (Gregory Peck) makes a coldly calculated decision to not risk additional lives by trying to launch a foolhardy rescue attempt. His major concern is devising a suitable public response to the specter of the crew slowing dying in space. The President, with his own PR concerns about the future of the space program, vetoes Keith’s decision and orders him to do something. The remainder the film, implausible as it may be, involves NASA’s efforts to quickly adapt an Air Force test spacecraft (which really did exist) for a rescue.
Implausibility aside, Marooned, directed by John Sturges, strikes me as having a more mature sensibility than Apollo 13. The ensemble cast is strong. Gene Hackman is especially good as the ship’s pilot who undergoes a breakdown as the situation steadily deteriorates. There’s also an incredible scene where Keith communicates with Commander Pruett (Crenna) on a secure line to inform him in a roundabout way that there isn’t enough oxygen left in the capsule to sustain three men until the rescue ship arrives, but there is enough for two. Keith’s implication is clear. One of them has to go. Sturges seems to try to give the film a semblance of reality by not saving all of the crew.
In addition to the improbability of such a rescue and an encounter with a helpful Russian cosmonaut that seems thrown in at the last minute, many found Sturges’s pacing too slow. I mostly disagree with that. But then again, I watched Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing around for two hours straight. There are also some who nitpick the film’s technical accuracy by citing things like the capsule’s stabilizer rockets making noise in the vacuum of space (which, I argue, could be what the astronauts hear from inside). But Marooned gets most of the space stuff right. And except for a few clumsy matte shots, the special effects are top notch. Sturges also deliberately lets microphones on the astronauts pick up their breathing. This simple but neat sound trick adds a subtle dimension to their characterization. In a different way, I found myself pulled into Sturges’s version of space flight just as strongly as Kubrick’s.
Honorable Mention—Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964): Though it devolves into a standard sci-fi epic complete with laser firing space ships, the first half of this updated version of the classic Daniel Defoe novel is priceless for any space geek.
Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.