Apollo 13 Premieres on Turner Classic Movies

Apollo 13 Premieres on Turner Classic Movies

On Saturday, February 27 (check local listings), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) airs Universal’s 1995 box office hit, Apollo 13. As with all its featured movies, TCM will air the movie unedited and without interruption.

This is at once an engaging, intelligent and intimate movie, one of both director Ron Howard’s and leading man Tom Hanks’ best pictures, and well worth seeing once and again.

I remember first seeing it in a movie theater in Glendale, California with a friend. I still recall the experience; the theater was packed and everyone seemed affected and moved. Only 10 years later, upon a second viewing and reflection on assignment for a movie review, did I think twice about the experience. Read my 2005 review, including thoughts on the anniversary DVD edition, here.

Apollo13PatchBesides the review, I also added a feature article about the Apollo space program to the archives. It was an article I started writing after seeing the movie again and attending a Universal press junket at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Because my thesis was (and remains) that it’s an excellent movie if viewed a certain way and that its theme is troubling at best, I began to think about, challenge and question why Hollywood’s only major feature films about manned space programs were generally either negative about manned space flight or focused on what goes wrong.

What I discovered during my research about the press coverage, cultural attitudes and responses to America’s historic space program—which was denounced by an American president—helped me to better understand today’s culture, the antipathy toward heroism and the rampant anti-heroism in movies. Read the article, “Measuring the Apollo Missions”, which includes links to the NASA history, pictures and a detailed chronology of Apollo 13’s events, here.

In retrospect, my 2005 coverage of Apollo 13 and the manned space program shaped my own negative views on NASA and its Space Shuttle program, which was established by President Nixon and is, in many ways, the antithesis of the Apollo program. The motion picture industry and the space program are both fabulously successful examples of the manmade which are uniquely catapulted by extraordinary advancements in technology. Movies, such as The Martian, can give audiences a vision of the future of space exploration which is possible to mankind, and it is up to scientists to make such visions realistic and relevant to people’s lives and it is up to philosophers to explain why it matters, as Ayn Rand did when she attended the 1969 launch of Apollo 11 and wrote about it afterwards. With private space travel becoming reality, it’s worth noting that Hollywood visionaries have yet to make a movie that depicts the great, strenuous effort that goes into getting science and space exploration exactly right—not merely fixing something when it goes wrong.

In the meantime, Apollo 13 and The Martian will have to do.

Related Links

Movie and Anniversary Edition DVD Review: Apollo 13

Measuring the Apollo Missions: A History and Analysis (2005)


Movie Review: The Martian

Movie Review: The Martian

TheMartianPosterDirector Ridley Scott’s science fiction saga, The Martian, cleverly plays off the modern media culture. The story of an astronaut (Matt Damon, Hereafter) stranded on Mars begins with a band of spaceship Westerners, apparently at some point in the near future, bantering back and forth up through and until a literal storm warning. That hook quickly leads to the emergency departure of the space vessel, Hermes, which is the name of a Greek god who was messenger for the gods to mortals.

The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir and adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard, delivers Ridley Scott’s mythological message.

It’s very purposeful, at times gripping, and it is probably unlike what most of today’s audiences have seen and come to expect from a movie set in outer space. Also, The Martian, which is strangely and invitingly both telescopic and episodic, shuttles between Earth and Mars, leaving space and its wonders largely off screen. The Martian is more intimate like Silent Running (1972) than it is like the recent and overrated Gravity. The scale, orientation and theme is utterly human. Damon’s astronaut, Mark, is the lone human left on another planet.

Whether and how he adapts and survives becomes the agonizing and, to some in the audience and probably by the filmmakers’ intention, humorous point of the tale and focus of the film. Mark begins his solitude by treating, medicating and healing himself. He hates disco music. He uses humor to cope. He imitates a popular TV character. In other words, Mark is an everyman. To prove it, Mark swears, gets cocky and makes mistakes. Mark is also a botanist, and he is resourceful, so maybe he stands a chance. With Mark as the main character, the audience bears witness as he becomes the Martian. What becomes of Mark—what becomes of the lost individual—is up to him. Should he ever make it off of Mars, it is equally up to everyone else.

This idea of interdependence is at the core of The Martian. Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Robin Hood, Prometheus) reinforces the plot with this prospective interdependence and harmoniousness many times. It may be cloaked in other themes, such as man’s ability to think, reason and choose as the key to his survival, but man as a social being who must live, and learn to live, among others is the movie’s theme. This is fine to the degree it is true, and Mr. Scott does not mitigate the role of the superior individual in his own advancement and in the march of human progress. Again and again, the individual stands up to make an original thought, comment or action that leads to finding a new path. In this sense, the spirit of discovery is very much infused here. Damon’s Mark makes a valiant effort to stay alive and not out of duty; he wants to live, even if only to say “in your face, Neil Armstrong” in one of the more unfortunate lines.

On the way to this potential convergence of Mark’s impossible plight and the many others upon whom his life depends, The Martian itself feels derivative of other pictures and dependent upon audience predispositions to other movies based on today’s culture. This makes The Martian feel generic over the two hour, 20-minute haul. The banter among the Hermes astronauts, led by the ship’s commander (Jessica Chastain) and including crew played by Kate Mara (Brokeback Mountain) and Michael Pena (Ant-Man), chugs right along. Jeff Daniels (Pleasantville, Looper, TV’s The Newsroom) as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) as the mission lead and Sean Bean (Troy, TV’s Game of Thrones) as head of flight operations, lead the team from crisis to crisis at conflicting purposes as various characters play their parts in the plan. Arcing upward toward some sort of twist and conclusion, The Martian is more than a bit too Hollywood.

That plot points chart the theme too neatly might make one overlook finer moments, such as a handwritten note at the last minute and a sudden desire to become more civilized in anticipation of communion, which felt like two of the most honest scenes in the picture. If The Martian oversimplifies the mechanics of an enormous mobilization of America’s military-space complex and underdramatizes the rest of humanity—and it does—it also accounts for the science, technology and dynamics of the mission, despite the Apollo 13-like cross-your-fingers quality and nods to religion. Audiences may notice the role of rebellion, too, in pursuing such noble ends in The Martian. There is much to feel good about in what might be called Ridley Scott’s hymn to humanity, a sort of anti-Alien, and Chastain, Mara, Ejiofor and Bean give especially good performances.

Everything in this problem-solving movie serves the climactic conflict resolution and nothing in The Martian feels perfunctory, even when it’s as generic as Matt Damon’s character. Scenes just before and during the end credits drive the mythological message home and, though The Martian is both too contrived and too contingent upon an opposite response to today’s pervasive sense of dread, it is also an experience that, in a world lacking in optimism, may be too good to pass up.