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Over the Moon

Celebrate a landmark event’s anniversary with some of the movies it inspired.

By MaryAnn Johanson
Posted // July 29,2009 -

People walked on the moon. Walked on the moon. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s history—40-years-gone history. Outside the living memory of many, many people now alive (including me, who wouldn’t make her debut on the planet till a month after Neil Armstrong’s famous first step on that dusty rock). That’s ... weird, especially to someone like me who’d give anything for a trip off the planet and can’t stand to see our tentative efforts to move out into space relegated to a historical footnote.

But I have my movies. My documentaries and near-documentaries about that time, my fictional stories about how the moon shot inspired people. Good thing, too, because I can just about barely hope to live long enough to see a human from Earth set foot again on the Moon, never mind on Mars.

I don’t think it’s at all bizarre, come to think of it, that Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) is one of my favorite movies ever, and maybe—if I can manage to be objective about it—one of the best movies of the latter half of the 20th century. Sure, it’s about an event that could have been one of the most unsettling disasters in human history; it chills me to think that the astronauts on this doomed lunar mission could have ended up as frozen corpses orbiting the moon to this day, or could have skipped off the Earth’s atmosphere on their tricky return only to go sailing off into deep space on an irretrievable trajectory. But Howard’s depiction of the triumphant averting of tragedy is journalistically straightforward in style while deeply, un-schmaltzily emotional in its execution.

Even better, Apollo 13 so inspired star Tom Hanks—clearly a space geek after my own heart—that he went on to produce the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, a 12-part look at some of the previously unsung work that went into putting men on the moon. My favorite episode? No. 10, “Galileo Was Right,” in which a geologist turns a bunch of flyboy jock astronauts into rockhounds of the first degree. (See? Science can be exciting!)

Hanks also produced the IMAX movie Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon, which—diminished as it is on DVD—is worth seeing for its showcasing of original footage of the moon walks. Ditto some of the many, many other documentaries—the stuff of science cable channels—dedicated to the hardcore geekery of the moon landings. The new Discovery Channel release Moon Machines covers the massive Saturn V booster, the building of the Lunar Module, the challenges of navigating in space, and more. For a foreign look at how the first moon landing played out, the BBC production Apollo 11: A Night to Remember offers rare archival news footage from July 1969.

What about the men—and they were, sadly, all men; no women have walked on the moon—who took those historic footsteps? In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) offers bittersweet reminiscences of the Apollo astronauts (guess who took a moment for a pee while he was descending from the Lunar lander?). The Right Stuff (1983) has not yet been bested as the most poignant, most exciting, most entertaining look at the men who rode the earliest rockets. It also clearly inspired both the charmingly goofy Space Cowboys (2000), in which a bunch of old-fart rocket jockeys take off for one last mission, and 2006’s The Astronaut Farmer, in which a modern wannabe hearkens back to the pioneering days of space travel (and classic Heinlein-esque science fiction!) by building his own backyard rocket.

We can still look back, too, at one of the first examples of how the moon stirred the artistic imagination which happens to be one of the first examples of cinema as well Georges Mélies’ 1902 short “A Trip to the Moon” is available on the DVD Mélies the Magician—and it serves as a reminder that the Moon has never, truly, been so far away.

 
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