Saturday, September 22, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon, and other planetary explorations (Mars, Titan)


The indie film around now that is all the rage is “In the Shadow of the Moon.” (Actually, the “In” reminds me of something else – “In the Valley of Elah” -- save that for another entry), directed by David Sington. Ron Howard, who directed “Apollo 13” was apparently the catalyst for this little gem distributed by ThinkFilm.

I digress again about ThinkFilm., in 2006, distributed a film called “The King” and the print in Washington DC at Landmark E Street broke. The film moved to the AMC Dupont Circle AMC (actually going out of business in January 2008) where it was still unusable. I called ThinkFilm in Toronto myself (I had to gumshoe to find the contact points) and reached a company executive. Two days later there was a viewable print at the Dupont theater and I got to see it. With platform releases, prints do break sometimes. DVD’s may be easier to manage, but the same thing happened in a film festival with a indie gay film “WTC View” on DVD. I had to rent it from Netflix to see the entire film.

To get back on the moon, this new film traces the history of all the moon walks from the viewpoint of the remaining living astronauts who went, all of them in their seventies now. The film shows more footage of the actual Moon surface than every seen before. It is a gray, grainy desert, looking like a shot from a black-and-white movie, with the only color the yellow of the lander and blue earthshine. But in this film, the live video (including a lot of aerial footage from the revolving command module 60 km up) is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, making the film as a whole look small, where as the astronaut interviews are the standard 1:85 to 1. There is plenty of talk about "The Right Stuff" (the book by Thomas Wolfe and 1983 film directed by Philip Kaufman).

Compare this with the Imax 3-D film "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon", in the fall of 2005 (distributed by Imax, although the movie said that Sony Pictures was involved), directed by Mark Cowen, written and narrated by Tom Hanks. Seeing that 45 minute film was like a $10 vacation to the moon, but I’m not sure if the 3-D full screen shots were real; there were many mini-inserts of smaller video.

Of course, everyone remembers Universal’s anamorphic Panavision "Apollo 13", directed by the same Ron Howard (book by Jim Lowell and Jeffrey Kluger), about the mission that struggled to survive the return trip. I saw this in a theater in 1995, and then again on a return flight from one of my “don’t ask don’t tell” gumshoeing trips, this one to San Francisco in 1995. There is a curious scene early where the lower sternal part of Tom Hanks's (Lowell) chest is "sandpapered" for the electrocardiographic or Holter Monitor leads that he will have to wear for several days. The end is a tremendous emotional high. On a substitute teaching assignment in 2004 in an eight grade science class, the kids watched this movie, and had to write up an explanation of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented. One boy wrote a very lucid engineering discussion, with good spelling and good English that was quite accurate.

Of course, Imax cameras need to go other places in the solar system. There is a Disney 2006 Imax film, "Roving Mars" (without 3-D) than again gives one a $10 trip to the Red Planet. (Remember the cynical "Capricorn One" (Peter Hyams) from 1978.

PBS produced a one-hour documentary (2005) "Exploring Space: The Quest for Life", that provides an animated simulation of drilling the surface of Europa (moon of Jupiter) down into the subterranean “Ocean” in a quest for life. Even more interesting in the Nova documentary “Voyage to the Mystery Moon” about the Cassini / Huygens probe of Titan, with some real pictures of the dry methane lake bed (it still looks like a desert at dusk on a hazy day) and of the “coast line.” Other pictures have surface since of sand dunes around the equator and of polar “Minnesota like” methane lakes. Titan would make a great subject for an Imax movie already. (Disney or Sony Pictures, where are you?) NASA has offered a lecture with detailed slides of all the Saturn moons at the Washington DC museum.

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