Five Movies About the Moon
What’s the single greatest achievement of mankind?
No, not what’s saved the most lives (such as the discovery of modern hygiene practices, or the discovery of penicillin or the flu vaccine), or what’s enabled economic growth and widespread increases in wealth (such as modern industrial production processes), or even what’s resulted in the greatest spread of knowledge and information throughout the world (as with the printing press or the Internet).
Rather, I’m talking about the accomplishment that’s the most astounding and awe-inspiring; the thing for which, when fully considered, the only appropriate response is a jaw-dropping “WOW.” What’s the pinnacle of achievement, at its gustiest and most daring? Judged by that standard, I don’t think there’s anything that comes close to putting a person on the moon, and bringing them back safely. Reaching the moon is mankind’s ultimate achievement, even if there are plenty of other things throughout our history that are more significant or impactful.
Not surprisingly, the moon has been a favorite subject of filmmakers since… well, since the beginning of film. It’s likely that when the average person were asked about silent-era films, they’d probably struggle to name any examples. But there’s a decent chance they have an image in their mind:
This famous still is from the film A Trip to the Moon, generally regarded as the first science fiction movie. Of course, a “movie” circa 1902 meant something different than what it means today, as A Trip to the Moon only runs for about 12 minutes, and has less than two dozen scenes.
Given that the film predates even the Wright brothers first flight, the depictions of spaceflight technology are pretty far off from what they’d turn out to be, but that’s not uncommon for sci-fi movies. To this day it’s still interesting to watch the gymnastic exploding moon natives, and an acting style that mimics traditional stage work.
First Men in the Moon is based on the H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name (which has been adapted to film several different times, including in 1919 and 2010). Still, it seems a bit odd to be taken back to 1899 for the story, since the Space Race was well underway when this British movie version was made. A contemporary tale would have been more exciting, and certainly more relevant, right?
Well, not necessarily. Perhaps the historical-fantastical approach was de facto required by the U.K.’s choice to forego manned space exploration during the 1960’s. Since the British weren’t conducting the arguably more exciting manned missions, the filmmakers felt compelled to look backward. But that’s not a negative — not when you’re working with Wells’ source material. There’s a reason H.G. Wells’ stories continue to inspire science fiction movies to this day; they’re fantastical and fun. And the fun factor gets a boost from Ray Harryhausen’s special effects.
Is First Men in the Moon goofy? Yes. Is it dated? Yup. Is it campy and fun, in a way that modern day camp rarely is? Absolutely.
At some point in the future, the dark side of the moon becomes home to a commercial Helium-3 mining operation that’s overseen by a single employee, Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell), working through a three year contract. There are problems with real-time communications between the mining outpost and Earth, meaning Bell’s only companion is an on-site robot named GERTY.
Sam crashes his surface rover while out performing his job, and begins to discover that the entire operation is horribly different from what he signed up for.
Alien taught us (and Aliens reinforced) that private corporate interests in space can conflict with the rights and safety of the individual, and the individual is usually going to wind up on the losing side. Moon shows us that, even in the absence of dangerous acid-blood monsters, the working man needs to watch his back when signing up for a job in space. How much control does your employer have over you and the job you do when that job is no longer on Earth? Do you cease to be a person and become another company asset?
“Houston, we have a problem” (perhaps second only to “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” for famous space quotes) was an understatement, to say the least. Apollo 13 is the true story of the lunar mission that never got the chance to land on the moon because of equipment malfunctions that happened en route.
It’s always a challenge to build tension in an historical drama when the outcome is already known. And the dynamic action here is watching engineers try to problem solve under significant time and materials constraints, but it works.
Even at 140 minutes, Apollo 13 has more than enough tension and drama, and never feels boring. Overall, the story is a great reminder that the U.S. lunar space program was truly about exploration and experimentation. The goals of the era justified taking risks, charging ahead on projects when the outcome was far from certain, and there was no shortage of brave individuals willing to put their lives on the line.
Apollo 13 made me proud, but it also made me sad — particularly the very first scene of the film. We don’t have anything like the Apollo program today. We seem to have lost the resolve to be the best and to be leaders for the mere sake of being the best and leading. We don’t value knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and long-term low-risk/high-reward potential outcomes are all but forgotten in the cost/benefit analysis.
Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell said, “It’s not a miracle… we just decided to go.” Unfortunately, we’ve now decided not to go.
A Trip to the Moon and First Men in the Moon had their own versions of “monsters,” but with modern special effects and “found footage” filming techniques, Apollo 18 promises a new level of moon-based terror. But once you read the movie poster tag-line (“There’s a reason we’ve never gone back to the moon”), you pretty much know the story. Apollo 18 is short, and still feels a little too long.
I wanted to like Apollo 18 (because I do like that tag-line), but it felt like the grainy and jerky filming style was being used as a substitute for real suspense. I didn’t care much about the astronauts, or what happened to them, or why.
Bonus Movie About the Moon:
Sure, Capricorn One is about faking a Mars landing… but c’mon — it’s really about the theory (still surprisingly popular to this day) that the moon landings were faked. Over the top with its menace, I think of Capricorn One as a great example of 1970’s conspiracy fears — particularly in the lengths that the government will use television to deceive us — even if the story itself is too earnest to be taken seriously.
I had hopes for Moonwalkers (2015) being able to tell a good “fake moon landing” story, but Ron Perlman’s good performance was lost in a script that seemed to be a mish-mash of tones and which never really found a coherent voice. there wasn’t much else worth watching. (Maybe in the hands of Guy Ritchie it could have been something better…)
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