20 July 2009


Today marks the 40th anniversary of the most incredible technological achievement in recorded history: the landing of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, and the steps taken by Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin as the first human beings to set foot on a planetary body other than the Earth. In recognition of that august moment, a list of ten movies and TV shows that have captured the magic, wonder and adventure of exploring space.

Le voyage dans la lune (Georges Méliès, 1902)
Not a sober-minded vision of what science might bring us to other worlds so much as a fantastic exploration of the possibilities of the cinema, the prolific Méliès's most famous work is among the most iconic films ever produced, and more than 100 years later still has the power to enchant with its maker's crazed imagination. Aliens that explode when you smack them with an umbrella, spaceships fired like bullets - and, of course, the Man in the Moon getting an eyeful of rocket ship - it may not be realistic in even the most generous sense, but it's a truly magnificent achievement, charming and inventive and full of the wide-eyed wonder that informs the best science-fiction.

Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950)
Time has not been kind to this groundbreaking motion picture - if you can make it through its endless 92 minutes without getting up at least once, you've probably been drugged - but it secured its place in history by being the first honest-to-God scientific attempt to make a movie about interplanetary travel. Consider also that it marked a major leap forward in visual effects technology, and it becomes clear that this movie, for all its dramatic shortcomings, is the granddaddy of countless movies to follow, from Star Wars to some of the other movies on this very list. It's medicine for the sci-fi scholar: not very fun, but tremendously important.

The Silent Star AKA First Spaceship on Venus (Kurt Matzig, 1960)
A much more durable example of science-fiction as prestige picture, this East German effort is unabashedly a piece of Soviet propaganda, so I'm afraid you'll need to keep your "historical context" caps on while watching it. But this movie - the first adaptation of a work by the great Stanislaw Lem ever filmed - presents some very intriguing ideas about humanity's place in the stars, while also presenting a significantly more multi-national image of space travel than just about any U.S. movie from the same period I can think of. It's thoughtful and exciting in equal measure, representing the state of the art of fantasy filmmaking in 1960; but do be careful to watch the original uncut German version, available on DVD. The cut released in America as First Spaceship on Venus is a great deal shorter (to de-Communise it, no doubt), and the result is incoherent enough that it made it onto Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Star Trek (created by Gene Roddenberry, 1966-'69)
The first version of Roddenberry's vision of a utopic future is also the one that gets the most right: the sense of space as a new version of the Old West, a universe of unexplored territory just past the horizon, where anything can happen and only the bravest and smartest can survive. There's plenty to love about many of the shows to follow in its wake, but very few of them - certainly none of its spin-offs, about bureaucrats in space, a sci-fi redress of Balkanization, and whatever the hell it is that Voyager is meant to be about - capture the same gee-whiz Space Age feeling of adventure and possibility. No, space travel is never going to look anything like this, but it damn well should.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
There's a lot more to this philosophically-laden head trip of a visual effects spectacular, but one of the things that Kubrick and his invaluable FX team achieved that has never been replicated even once in the 41 years since is to capture the stately, balletic slowness of space. Massive vehicles and stations spin about with almost agonising stateliness, while "The Beautiful Blue Danube" gives their movements the elegance of, well, a waltz. And inside those ships and stations, life goes on in tiny ways, depicted with enough specificity that it almost feels more like a documentary that got sent back in time than someone's imaginative vision of the future. Just about the only thing that gives the game away is the Pan-Am signage on the space shuttle.

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Alien is a great many things, most prominently a haunted house film with a spaceship in place of the house and a slimy creature that suggests devouring genitalia as the ghost. But it's also a rare and quite successful depiction of space exploration as a matter of corporations and dingy ships, with a tiny scrap of inhabitable areas competing with acres and acres of industrial Something. Remember, the titular alien doesn't appear for a good half of the movie; prior to that, it's all blinking readouts and computers and dullness for each and every member of the crew. Space: so big that it can't help but be completely damn boring.

Cosmos (written by Carl Sagan, 1980)
Not, perhaps, about space travel per se, this is however the finest single piece of pop-science ever put before a mainstream audience, and remains an argument-ender almost 30 years later. Meet someone who thinks public broadcasting has no value? Remind them that without PBS, there'd be no Cosmos. There will never be anything put to film or video that does a better job than this monumental miniseries at demonstrating the incredible size of the universe, and our tiny place within the whole amazing span of it all. If watching this doesn't make you swoon with the grandeur of space and our ability to comprehend it from one inconvenient vantage point, you are clinically dead.

Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995)
The best proof that its director actually does have some talent, this dramatisation of the greatest near-disaster in NASA's history may play some cheap cards every now and then, and not the least of its sins is the bombastic, shamelessly jingoistic score. But when it clicks - and it's usually clicking - this is cinema's most enthralling depiction of the nuts and bolts of the space program, doubtlessly given some fictional sexiness just to make it work better, but who cares? The kind of grand adventure of human ingenuity that can make an impressionable teenager a life-long space junkie, not that I'm thinking of a particular 13-year-old who saw this movie the day it opened and still watches it almost every year even as a cynical film snob of 27.

From the Earth to the Moon
(executive produced by Tom Hanks, 1998)
Riding high off of his success in Apollo 13, Hanks wrangled a whole bunch of talented people and a large sum of money from HBO when that legendary cable channel was just starting to dip its toes into original programming, an the result was a massively entertaining and educating 12-episode recap of the moon race from the first days of the Mercury Program to the largely forgotten Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Unapologetically nostalgic, proudly American, and geeked-out to its core, the series leaves no room for doubt that the moon program was the most incredible collection of brilliant people and technical innovation in history, the best parts of humanity all working to the noblest goal possible.

In the Shadow of the Moon (David Sington, 2007)
There are sexier documentaries about the space program that I, alas, have not seen (damn you, new Criterion Blu-Ray of For All Mankind, for not being here when I needed you!). So this is, in part, an all-purpose stand-in. Which isn't to say that it's not a wonderful film on its own terms; for it certainly is that. Footage that had never before been released gives the movie a certain space-porn appeal, but the real achievement here is in treating the men of the Apollo program as men, first and foremost; not heroes, not legends, but guys who just had a job to do, and for the most part seem even a little bit embarrassed by the fame that "Apollo astronaut" has conferred on them. They didn't set out to make history, it just kind of happened by accident, and In the Shadow of the Moon is brilliant because it finds that human core: the moon landing wasn't the result of great historical impulses and inevitabilities, it was about people. Crazy, wonderful, gifted people, who wanted to do something extraordinary, and did it.


dfantico said...

I admire Sagan a lot for writing the Baloney Detection kit, sticking it to CSICOP and I share his birth date, but I haven't seen Cosmos yet (released the year I was born). No "Contact" on this list, but it's worth remembering that he first wrote the screenplay, had to write the bestselling book and only then the studio heads saw potential in the film.

Rick Aragon said...

I only remember parodies involving Sagan's "BILL-ions and BILL-ions" refrain (though I can't vouch for their accuracy). I would add Forbidden Planet if only because it's an adaptation of one of my favorite Shakespeare works (The Tempest). Admittedly not the most faithful, but still enjoyable.