Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fly Me to the Moon (Ben Stassen, 2008)

Shoo fly

If you think flies are annoying and inconsequential, then this movie--about eighty-four minutes' worth of bright blue (as in bluebottles?) and strangely hairless pests hitching a ride on Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the moon--is in all likelihood not for you.

You wonder what on earth (well, maybe that's the problem right there) the filmmakers were thinking when they set out to make this picture--was it a desire for profit? The movie did $12 million in domestic gross, not enough to make up even its lowly $25 million budget (it did $34 million worldwide--but you need to earn at least twice that to pay for prints, advertising, theatrical fees, all that good stuff).

Was it a desire to educate? The flies may be blue and hairless, their child maggots a repulsive shade of pale (you think of armless, legless little pink babies, wriggling about and chewing on rotten meat), but the Saturn V rocket, Apollo capsule and lunar modules that help carry the astronauts (and their tiny stowaways) to their ultimate destination are lovingly rendered and realized. The astronauts use accurate terminology (a mid-course correction made by firing small rocket nozzles is called a burn), do authentic maneuvers (the astronauts clamber from capsule to module, which disengages and lands on the moon), and in fact Edwin Eugene "Buzz " Aldrin, Jr., voices his own digitized character. Seems to me NASA, or at least Mr. Aldrin, hoped to remind people of the historical significance of this moon shot.

(And in fact the film was meant to educate, or at least wasn't meant to only be a mindless summer feature--a 49 minute version was shown in various museums and theme parks from the summer of 2007 onwards; a 13 minute version was being shown in at least two Six Flags amusement parks. Which makes one want to ask--what kind of script can you construct from a theme park ride, or what kind of script can you construct from a story meant to break down into hour-long and quarter-hour-long versions? I mean, aside from The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), which became a freak hit basically because Johnny Depp decided to toss the script out the window and enjoy himself?)

In which case, why yoke that true story to this blandly saccharine one? The Apollo flight had more than enough share of drama and thrills to fill any normal-length film--that moment where, for example, Neil Armstrong looked out of the lunar module's window and discovered that the computer was landing them in a crater surrounded by rocks--that was real, the danger was real. A straightforward, digitally animated sequence wouldn't be my idea of a perfect cinematic realization of the scene but trust me, not having those bratty little bluebottles along to make cute remarks and suck floating globules of Tang would be a vast improvement right there.

It's not impossible, spending an entire animated feature on a space mission; matter of fact it's been done before, with Hiroyuki Yamaga's magnificent Ōritsu Uchūgun: Oneamisu no Tsubasa (Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise, 1987), where a fictional country on a parallel Earth struggles to send a man into space. The level of thought, the complexity of detail the animators poured into the film is staggering: the nozzle assembly of the giant engine resembles that of a Soviet Soyuz (Russian for 'rocket') engines; the country's entire society is fully realized, from the doughnut-shaped coins and triangular spoons used in everyday commerce to the faintly risible feathery caps worn by the space cadets.

The film's tone isn't one of relentless scientific optimism, either. At first the space force doesn't enjoy a high reputation; if anything, people regard it as something of a joke. The cadets and scientists have to earn the right to be proud of themselves, work hard to solve all technological problems, undergo rigorous training, stay above the local and international political intrigues that threaten to overwhelm the program.

It's an amazing film; if it wasn't for the fact that one of the pilots makes a misguided attempt at assaulting a woman, I'd recommend it for children, easy.

If we're talking about something more fact-based, why, check out The Right Stuff (1983), Philip Kaufman's often hilarious, often thrilling, hugely entertaining epic about the astronauts of the Mercury program. You name it, Kaufman's picture in all likelihood has it: rocket planes and spacecraft hurtling to the edge of Earth's atmosphere and beyond; military officers inflicted with inane (sometimes insane) tortures designed to test their preparedness for outer space; a do-or-die struggle between scientists (who regard the astronauts as mere test subjects) and astronauts (who regard themselves as pilots in full control of their ship, dammit, none of this 'spam-in-a-can' nonesense!).

And the filmmaking's tremendous--not just the flying sequences (which have the crude, propulsive look of early NASA documentary footage), not just the special effects (the view of the Earth from a plane or from space was created by avant-garde filmmaker Jordan Belson), but iconic shots such as the Mercury astronauts walking towards the camera in slow motion, to the tune of inspiring martial music (a shot Tarantino would steal so many years later for his Reservoir Dogs (1992)).

Again, wonderful stuff to show to kids, if it weren't for the scene where astronauts contribute sperm samples for testing.

Seems that scenes of dubious wholesomeness are a chronic problem with films about space--but when you think about it, the raunchy humor reflects space travel's essentially juvenile nature. You get this impression from both Oneamisu and The Right Stuff that a strong streak of immaturity runs through the men administering and undergoing the enterprise--and even that would be an interesting angle to explore, even in an animated feature. Anything but this flavorless, nutritionless, freeze-dried excuse for a movie here.

First published in Businessworld, 1.23.09

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