One Small Step for … Movies

Next week the world celebrates the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Rightly so, because it was a feat made possible by political vision, scientific and industrial genius and, most importantly, truly awesome levels of human endurance, determination, creativity and courage. Whatever else our failings as a species — war, famine, the […]

Last Updated: July 20, 2009 @ 6:48 PM

Next week the world celebrates the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Rightly so, because it was a feat made possible by political vision, scientific and industrial genius and, most importantly, truly awesome levels of human endurance, determination, creativity and courage.

Whatever else our failings as a species — war, famine, the films of Joe Piscopo — putting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Alrdin on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, is something of which we can be forever proud.

Just see if you don’t still get the chills watching the footage that 500 million people tuned in to — and this was back when there were only 3.6 billion of us and there wasn’t a flatscreen in every room.

But the lunar landing was also an event that cinema had predicted — almost since its very inception. I think in some small way, the movies helped mankind make this dream real.

The most enduring image from the birth of film is from George Melies “A Trip to the Moon” (“Le Voyage Dans La Lune”). Influenced by Jules Verne’s 1865 novel “From Earth to the Moon,” it visualizes a manned projectile shot into space accompanied by much fanfare. Or course, science kinda goes out the window when the Man in the Moon gets an Earthling rocket in the eye.

But it is worth remembering that Melies made the film in 1902, a year before the first powered flight.

It’s not surprising that the moon should play such a key role in imagination and in the development of fantastic film. Before they mastered fire, our ancestors gazed up in wonder at what is — to ours and their eyes — a very big silver screen whose glow is but the reflection of projected light.

Earth’s shadows transit across the surface of the moon being, in effect, the first and eternal moving image. Speed it up enormously and it would resemble the on-off light/dark “flicker” that gives us the word flick.

In the nearly 70 years between Melies and Apollo 11, the moon played a key role in the imaginings of sci-fi film. And more than in other genre offerings — Giant lizards! Magical wizards! Zombie gizzards! — there was usually an attempt at realism. Sensing that getting to the moon really was possible, writers and directors tried hard to envisage how it might be done.

The greatest of these was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” made with the assistance of NASA as it was preparing the Apollo missions. But one of its famous shots — the moon shuttle flight attendant’s zero-gravity floor-to-roof walk — was influenced not just by the goings on at NASA but by 1953’s cheapie “Project Moon Base,” often made sport of by bad-movie fans.

In this clever scene, astronauts casually walk one way down a hall as their fellows come from the other direction — on the roof. And some of the lunar module stuff’s not too bad, either. The script was by Robert Heinlein, who’d taken pains to make his earlier moon-movie script, 1950’s “Destination Moon,” as scientifically accurate as he could.

But real realism wasn’t quite possible until we’d actually been there — and special effects grew advanced enough to depict the rigors of space flight. When Phillip Kaufman made 1983’s “The Right Stuff” and Ron Howard made 1995’s “Apollo 13,” it helped us understand just how much guts and genius were needed to plant our footprint on that powdery landscape a quarter-million miles away.

It’s fitting that so far this year’s best sci-fi film is “Moon,” another careful imagining of just what it might be like for mankind to set up home on the lunar surface.

That it’s so great is due to Sam Rockwell’s performance and direction from Duncan Jones. The latter was possibly born to this job, with the film echoing his dad’s song “Space Oddity” released — you guessed it — in 1969.

No doubt, with NASA gearing up to go to the lunar surface again, more great moviemakers can help us dream our way there.

Or as Buzz Lightyear might say: “To infinity and beyond!”