Wednesday 5 August 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Space Geek Fortnight

A rare thing happened in film club a few weeks ago: we went to see something that wasn't the suggestion of the club's founders. The plan had been for Moon, but this was postponed when someone spotted, for one night only, documentary In the Shadow of the Moon at the Filmhouse. Scheduled to co-incide with the anniversary of the original Apollo 11 landing (well, nearly so; actually, in GMT that happened in the small hours of 21st July), it didn't matter that it was on Channel Four later that same evening. This is the kind of documentary that it pays to see on the big screen. Moon was therefore put off a week leading to a fortnight of space geek heaven.

Described as narrator-less, though this isn't quite true (to my mind narration by caption is still narration, though it is minimal), the film tells the story of Apollo's astronauts through their own words.

It is helped by some fantastic visuals in the form of brilliantly remastered footage. True, it isn't free of grain in the manner of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but it is no less compelling for it. Perhaps most remarkable is the distant shot of the staging of the giant Saturn V rocket: as the first stage cuts out, acceleration drops from 4.5g to nothing, the rocket plume flares up round it, and then it shoots forward again with the ignition of stage two. There was a magnificent poetry to it.

The astronauts largely came across very well. Michael Collins, consigned to relative historical obscurity, having stayed behind in the command module while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong descending to the Sea of Tranquility in the Eagle was especially engaging. So too Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean. Unfortunately, Armstrong himself was a notable absence.

None of those interviewed came over badly and, as with James May's rather good recent documentary, it was actually nice to focus a little more on some of the lesser known names.

There was plenty of footage to keep the space geek in me in seventh heaven - it was nice to see shots of the X-15 (an experimental rocket powered plane).

Philip Sheppard's excellent score helped lift the imagination perfectly and never got in the way.

However, it wasn't perfect. Firstly, a lot was left out. Of course, if you want to tell the story of Apollo in an hour and a half, such decision have to be made. As such, the choice to focus solely on the astronauts had a logic to it. And yet, at times I found myself wishing for an interview with some of the engineers or with NASA flight director Gene Kranz.

A more nagging imperfection was the implication of just how central the astronauts were. I think the film exaggerated their role in the design and engineering process.

Another minor piece of nit-picking concerns the narrative post Apollo 11. Again, this was doubtless to save time, however, we jumped past 12 and straight to the near disaster of 13 (massively abridged, but then the film of Apollo 13 lasts a good two hours on its own). The caption then flashed up that a further 5 missions landed on the moon. Well, in a sense: 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 all did, but 12 had already happened. Apollo 9, which test flew the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) in low earth orbit, and 10, which took it to the moon and scouted for landing sites, were airbrushed out entirely.

But such concerns are minimal and don't matter next to the compelling result. Well worth seeing either on the big or small screen. Not least for those stunning pictures from the later missions: astronauts bouncing around in lunar rovers before revealing, decades later, that the fact there was no traffic made it much easier. Unlike many documentaries, in getting the words of these men down on tape, it can actually claim to be a historical document of value.

Oh, and for those idiots who actually think the whole thing was fake, Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charlie Duke puts it about as well as I've heard it over the closing credits:

"We've been to the Moon nine times. Why would we fake it nine times, if we faked it?"

Oh, and if you are in that ignorant group, see here.

The next week saw us back at Cameo, albeit in screen two, with the sound bleeding through slightly from next door, for Sam Rockwell, Sam Rockwell and, well, Sam Rockwell, in Moon.

Rockwell gives a superb performance as Sam Bell, the sole human inhabitant of a distant mining outpost on the far side of the moon. Far side, note, not dark side (that being a slight misnomer since it changes depending on its position in relation to the sun). He's been there for three years, overseeing the giant robots that comb the satellite for what is now earth's dominant power source. Soon he will go home, but time has taken it's toll and he appears to be losing his mind.

I won't say too much more, because I don't want to spoil it. Having said that, there is not much by way of surprise once the initial puzzle is resolved, and that happens fairly simply and early on (and isn't an oh my god, I never saw that coming moment). But that doesn't matter, it isn't the point. Sci-Fi, at its best, is about exploring interesting and impossible questions in a way that can't otherwise be done. And Moon does so.

A 'costless' way has been found of doing something, but would it be worth it, would we want to do it if we could and what would happen if we did? Moon asks these questions, suggests answers, and still leaves you thinking on your way out.

The score is superb: isolating and claustrophobic at times, reinforcing the story and the production design. The wonderfully ironic usage of Chesney Hawkes' The One and Only is nothing short of inspired.

The trailer seemed like the George Clooney Solaris, which I rather enjoy, but it wasn't that at all. Others have mentioned silent running, and it did have a certain something in common with that (though it lacked that's film's ability to bring a tear to eyes of heard hearted souls).

Perhaps the strongest references were to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in one or two places, such as in the extend shot of Sam's face towards the end, complete with flashing colours, they were overdone. At first, Gerty, a computer/robot and Sam's only companion (well voiced by Kevin Spacey), seemed a little too similar to HAL. And yet, as the film progressed, it became clearer that he was not. However, he was used to address a very similar question: how does such a machine respond to conflicting demands and orders.

It was, surprisingly, from the tone of the trailer, oddly uplifting it its ending.

The effects in general were pretty good and both the base and the external shots of the mining machines had a fine and atmospheric look to them, especial the debris sprayed out behind the latter as they trawled the surface (reminding us how much excellent work you can do with miniatures that now seems ignored in favour of CGI).

But, as ever, I'm not above a little nit-picking. Superb as it looked, at the same time it still seemed a little fake in one respect: gravity. After the previous week's actual lunar footage, something about the way everything moved was wrong, exactly like it was on sound stages. Which, of course, it was. Only in one very late scene did they get the feel of 1/6th gravity. This, of course, is more excellent evidence we really went - even forty years later, it's not easy to fake it.

In the Shadow of the Moon prompted me to do something I've been meaning to for some time: log onto Amazon and order From the Earth to the Moon (and at under £15 why wouldn't you?). This twelve part HBO mini-series is produced by Tom Hanks and chronicles Apollo in much greater detail. Sadly, for reasons passing understanding, in the UK we've got a widescreen release, which actually means we've got a cropped version, since the original wasn't produced in that format.

The twelve episodes focus broadly on each of the manned Apollo missions with a couple of extras thrown in. This broadly works, though it doesn't always seem to be the story I want.

In some cases that's very wise: it would have been a mistake to try and remake Apollo 13 (there's nothing to improve on and with less money and less time you'd only embarrass yourself). Instead we never even see the inside of the capsule and get a story about how the media reacted.

At other times, though, I get the nagging sense that something is missing: NASA flight director Gene Kranz, a key figure in the Apollo 13 mission (superbly played by Ed Harris in the film) and elsewhere in the programme, barely appears. This is baffling.

However, at its best it is quite superb. Episode two, which focuses on the aftermath of the tragic fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a test for Apollo 1 is especially harrowing.

Spider, the story of the design and construction of the LEM, is fascinating, doubtless even if you're not an engineer like me. Similarly, the penultimate part, which focuses on the toll taken on the astronauts' wives, makes for an interesting and fresh insight.

Elsewhere it's a little less successful. The series would be immeasurably improved by cutting Hanks' cheesy narration that opens each episode with some guff leading up to the words "from the earth to the moon". Perhaps these would be less annoying if the episodes weren't in rapid succession on a DVD. I'd say he should stick to acting, except that the final episode, which he penned, is really rather good.

There are some other slightly odd choices, for example I'm not sure why some much of 1968 (the first voyage to the moon, made by Apollo 8) was filmed in black and white. Similarly the decision to blend in archive footage, which doesn't always quite mesh seamlessly in the manner of, say, Goodnight and Good Luck.

More generally the effects good but not great. Comparison to the fantastic visuals of Apollo 13 is a little disappointing, particularly in the rocket launch scenes. Elsewhere it is better. The sets, for example, appear to have been constructed in superb and meticulous detail. The biggest problem is the moon itself. True, they've built a vast set, and using a clever effect with a bunch of lights and a giant mirror, got an effect remarkably like the light source that is the sun. But compared to the actual footage of astronauts bouncing around in In the Shadow of the Moon, despite the tens of millions spent, it just looks, well, fake. This is especially true of the rover scenes which look very safe in comparision. While the score is generally pretty good, the quality of the sound recording is disappointing.

Still, in terms of factual accuracy it seems pretty bang on and even though I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on the subject, it taught me plenty I didn't know. I'd still rank it as an absolute must purchase, if not having quite the perfection of that later Hanks/HBO collaboration: Band of Brothers (but since that has no space geekery it is a subject for another time.

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