Apollo in Hollywood: 8 Moonlanding Movies

Unlike previous voyages of exploration, humanity’s first steps on the Moon did not inspire great works of art and literature. In fact Project Apollo has rarely even intruded in to popular culture. However in the past forty years there has been a smattering of movies and TV shows featuring Project Apollo.

In the next months we will be treated to “found footage” horror flick Apollo 18 which I have already talked about. Basically, it seems to be about two astronauts on a secret Moon mission having a really nice time.  Then there will be the latest in the Transformers franchise, Michael Bay’s Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon.  This will apparently begin with a recreation of Apollo 11’s historic landing, but revealing that Neil and Buzz secretly were there to explore a giant crashed alien robot, leading on to  scenes of bombastic violence and destruction so typical of this director that (according to io9.com) they ought to be called ‘Bayhem’. I do not hold any hopes for this movie at all and I note that the Apollo CSM flying towards the Moon at the start of the trailer does not have a Lunar Module attached!

However there are some movies touching on the Apollo missions which are some worth looking at. Opinions are my own and are based on my remembered viewings.

  1. Apollo 13: The Apollo movie everyone knows is of course Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” starring Tom Hanks (a noted enthusiast for space exploration in general, and Apollo in particular, see later). In fact it is so well known that there is little more to say. In every department, acting, direction, script and the technical department, this is a great movie. Released in 1995 it was based on the book “Lost moon” by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Klugman and probably did more to establish the “can do, failure is not an option” ethos attributed to Apollo-era NASA than the actual events did. To see how effective this fine movie was in changing public attitudes, look at pre-1995 histories of space exploration and see how little space they devote to this mission. Jim Lovell (the real one) makes a brief appearance as the captain of the recovery ship.

2. Beyond the stars: The Apollo mission and astronaut in my next movie are entirely fictitious but are intended to be authentic. Beyond the stars directed by Richard Saperstein is an interesting oddity. Christian Slater plays Eric, a space-mad teenage boy who tries to befriend a gruff and uncommunicative retired Apollo 18 astronaut played by Martin Sheen.  Sheen’s character initially spurns the hero-worshipping Eric, but is gradually won over, and we discover why his lunar experiences have left him so sour (the flashblacks are very well-done, the spacesuit and lunar landscapes are very convincing for a relatively low-budget production). I like this 1989 movie and I think it deserves to be better-known, the leads show what splendid actors they are, while the rest of the cast, which also includes F. Murray Abraham and a pre-fame Sharon Stone (before she lost her pants in Basic Instinct the following year), is excellent. It has a surprising plot development in the final five minutes which does have you wondering what happened next. The following movie might have the answer…

3. Moontrap: In this low –budget science fiction B movie an alien artefact containing ancient mummy narrowly misses a Shuttle Orbiter, leading NASA to discover evidence of alien activity on the Moon. In response an investigative mission is assembled using surplus Apollo hardware, and I remember being impressed by the attempts to make this look realistic. The film starred Walter Koenig (of Star Trek and Babylon 5 fame) and Bruce Campbell (who seems to have appeared in every trashy horror movie in the past thirty years) as the lucky crew.Our heroes are sent to the Moon where they encounter malevolent alien robots (which are thankfully vulnerable to bullets from the machine guns brought with the astronauts) and a woman who has slept in suspended animation for the past 14,000 years waiting for rescue. The movie does not explain her origin; presumably she was part of the Atlantean space program.  I have seen this movie once and remember thinking it wasn’t too bad considering its budget, but I would not be surprised to discover it is actually rather terrible.

4. The Dish: The only comedy on the list, The Dish tells the (heavily fictionalised) story of the Australian staff of the Parkes radio telescope fighting technical problems to receive the TV footage of Armstrong and Aldrin’s first steps. Made in 2000, it is a nice, gentle movie which has a lot of fun with the culture clash between the Australians (led by a cardiganed and pipe-smoking Sam Neill), at Parkes and the local small-town eccentrics and the NASA representative.

5. The Space Movie: Aside from fiction based on fact, the Apollo Project has been covered in several cinema documentaries. The Space Movie is a film made by Tony Palmer in 1979 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It is essentially movie clips from many NASA missions, including Gemini and Skylab flights, edited together to create a lunar mission set to music by Mike Oldfield. As such it is interesting to watch but would not be my first choice for anyone wanting to learn about the Apollo project, as far as I remember there is no narration. The obvious inconsistency of the footage from various missions brought together for this production (the lunar landscapes suddenly change from flat to hilly for example) has been used by Moon hoax proponents as ‘evidence’ for their case.

6. For All Mankind: Ten years later Al Reinert directed For All Mankind to retell the Apollo story. Again the film edits together NASA footage taken by the Apollo astronauts on many different missions into a fascinating collage but features narration from interviews with astronauts including Michael Collins, Jim Lovell and “Pete” Conrad. Brian Eno was to have provided the soundtrack but many composers contributed to the final version. Despite my misgiving on the film’s editing. I think this is a pretty good documentary. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1990.

7. Magnificent Desolation:  This is a 40 minute documentary made in 3D for IMAX cinemas. First shown in 2005, this is an excellent experience, depicting recreations of events from the Moon missions tied together with extracts from interviews about the Moon from children. It also features some fictional scenes of an hypothetical crisis faced by astronauts when their rover crashes and a look at a possible future with a glimpse of a grandiose lunar base. The movie was produced, co-written and narrated by Tom Hanks.

8. In the Shadow of the Moon: The most recent Apollo documentary is 2006’s In the Shadow of the Moon. Once again this used NASA archival images, including some rarely seen footage and interviews with ten surviving Apollo astronauts, including Aldrin, Al Bean, Collins, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. In my opinion, this is the best of the Apollo documentaries, and was very well received by the critics. On the DVD release there are some very interesting deleted scenes, such as the astronauts talking about the “Dark Side”, the accidental deaths and personal sacrifices caused by the Apollo project and Gene Cernan describing just why the first 15 seconds of each flight were the most important.

Best of the lot is not actually a movie, but a TV series. Tom Hanks and Howard came together a few years after Apollo 13 to help produce From the Earth to the Moon, a 12 part miniseries first shown in 1998. Loosely based on Andrew Chaikin’s superb book “A man on the Moon”, this tells the story of the Apollo project from the early 1960s to 1972. The first few episodes are pretty standard dramatised documentaries, but as the series continues each episode tells its story in a different and often original way; for example the Apollo 12 mission is presented as a comedy, Apollo 13 is told virtually entirely from an Earth-bound perspective as rival reporters cover the story, the final episode intercuts the Apollo 17 mission with a recreation of film maker Georges Méliès (played by Tom Hanks) struggling to make “Le Voyage dans la Lune” in 1902. As a historical recreation this series is wonderful. The producers strove to find actors who resembled the astronauts they were to portray, so the series gives numerous fine character actors a chance to take starring roles. It’s fun to spot all the familiar but hard to name faces (“Wasn’t he a bad guy in Robocop?”, “Look, there’s the dad from Malcolm in the Middle!”, “Is he the one from The Princess Bride?”). As you may have realised I love this series, my only misgiving being the rather stiff and pompous introduction Tom Hanks gives to each episode. Popular in the US, the series has only been shown once on terrestrial TV in the UK, hilariously but sadly, ITV showed it with no advance publicity in the Saturday morning kids’ cartoon slot. The schedulers allegedly believed it was a sci-fi show!

(Article by Colin Johnston)