From Cat-Women of the Moon to First Man: movies and the Moon
If mankind survives long enough to develop feasible long-distance space travel, the 1969 Moon landing will assume a new and almost unassailable significance in human history, comparable not so much with, say, Columbus discovering America, as with the invention of fire.
As the 50th anniversary looms, much has been made of the fact that this extraordinary event united an awestruck world in a way that has never been repeated. But not everyone was thrilled about Apollo 11's success. During this and other Moon missions, some Americans took to the streets to protest against their government squandering a fortune on the Nasa programme while people were starving in ghettos.
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The Nasa space project was very expensive, with the Apollo programme alone having cost an estimated $153bn, when adjusted for inflation. And whether that represents value for money or a sinful waste, only time will tell. What's remarkable, though, is how quickly Nasa managed to achieve a mission that must have sounded like the stuff of science-fiction when John F Kennedy first announced it in 1961.
Impelled by Cold War competition, and helped by the rapid evolution of armaments during World War II, a team of experts designed feasible spacecraft and spacesuits, staged Earth orbits and achieved a journey to the Moon and back, all in the space of a decade.
Two new documentaries provide differing perspectives on Nasa's achievements. Prisoners of the Moon, a docudrama made by Irish filmmaker Johnny Gogan, confronts the inconvenient truth that some of Nasa's rocket scientists had previously worked on the Nazis' V2 project, which used slave labour. (Distractingly, one of them is played by Jim Norton, who played Bishop Brennan in Father Ted: sadly, no one kicks him up the arse.)
The nuts and bolts of the Moon mission itself are explored with no fuss and great focus in Apollo 11, Todd Douglas Miller's documentary which uses digitally restored archive footage to thrillingly recreate that historic flight. Certain things strike you while watching it: the enormous scale of the project, the worryingly makeshift look some of the craft and equipment, and the bravery and sangfroid of the three men who voyaged into the unknown.
They got there, of course, but in a way Armstrong and Aldrin's televised moonwalk was a death blow to those who'd dreamed that something more interesting might lie on or beneath the surface of the ghostly orb. It has fascinated film-makers from the very start.
In Georges Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), one of the first narrative films, a group of French adventurers set out for the Moon, affront the Man in the Moon by landing in his eye, and do battle with a lunar-dwelling tribe called the Selenites. It must have been nice to imagine another species sitting up there, watching us.
The Selenites made another appearance in The First Men in the Moon (1919), actor/director Bruce Gordon's adaptation of HG Wells' novel about a businessman and an inventor who encounter a sophisticated alien race after travelling to the Moon to make their fortunes. Surviving stills suggest hauntingly beautiful set designs, but the film itself has been lost.
An equally poetic and in some ways oddly prescient vision of lunar exploration was created in 1929 by the great German expressionist master Fritz Lang. In Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), a slightly unhinged entrepreneur called Helius builds a rocket to travel to the Moon, convinced there's gold to be found. There is! But a tricky love triangle ends in bleak romance as Helius and the noble beauty Friede choose to stay behind on the far side of the Moon, which some at the time believed had a breathable atmosphere.
That wasn't especially prescient, but Helius's multi-stage rocket bore remarkable similarities to the one that would take Armstrong and Co to the Moon 40 years later.
In the 1950s, as the atomic age dawned and space travel became scientifically feasible, a science-fiction craze gripped America.
The Moon played its part. In Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), glamorous, leotard-clad females emerged from a lunar cave to try and steal a human mission's spaceship, which looked worryingly home-made.
Because better telescopes and satellite images seemed to suggest nothing much was happening on the lunar surface, film-makers became increasingly keen on the notion that the aliens were lurking underground. Sub-lunar Moon-beings waylaid an international space crew and sternly lectured them on the importance of love in 12 to the Moon (1960).
Mankind itself was the enemy in Project Moon Base (1953), when US plans to set up a lunar space station were sabotaged by a foreign spy. And how about Nude on the Moon? The lunar explorers in this endearingly ridiculous 1961 B-picture discovered a species of topless, telepathic extraterrestrials controlled by a sultry moon queen.
But as the actual Moon landing became imminent, the nonsense had to stop. Released the year before the Apollo 11 mission, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey saw mankind shoot past the Moon as they plunged deep into the cosmos, bringing their old problems with them.
For a while, those blurry, fascinating images of real men bouncing about on the lunar surface made science-fiction seem redundant. And though the genre recovered in the mid-1970s, one of the most influential films ever made about space travel was actually a thriller.
Released in 1977, Capricorn One starred James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson of all people as astronauts preparing for the first-ever manned mission to Mars. But when they get to the launch pad, they're spirited away from the spacecraft, which takes off without them. A malfunction in the life-support systems had rendered the rocket unsafe, but Nasa are not about to lose face and intend to stage the landings.
The astronauts are hidden at a desert base, and forced to bounce about on a film set built to look like the surface of Mars. It was quite a silly film really, despite its amusing premise, but Capricorn One was taken very seriously by some, and helped proliferate conspiracy theories about the Nasa Moon landings themselves.
Footage from the film was used as illustration on the Fox TV show Conspiracy Theory, and in Bart Sibrel's 2001 film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon. According to Sibrel, all the Nasa Moon missions were staged, and he went so far as to ask astronauts to swear on the Bible that they'd been to the Moon. Good old Buzz Aldrin took a dim view of all this, and punched him in the face.
The window in which those Moon landings happened was surprisingly brief. Between 1969 and 1972, 12 men walked on the Moon in six missions, on the last of which Gene Cernan got to drive around in a specially designed lunar 4x4. He would later be the subject of a reflective documentary called The Last Man on the Moon (2014). As that title would suggest, no human has walked on the Moon since Cernan's Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
And in the intervening years, the drive to the stars has dissipated somewhat, with the space shuttle programme ending with a whimper and the space travel business now looking as though it's been privatised.
As Nasa's glory days receded, nostalgia for them grew. Philip Kaufman's 1983 film The Right Stuff celebrated the bravery of the Project Mercury pilots, whose efforts would bring their successors to the Moon.
And Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995) very entertainingly told the story of that ill-fated 1969 mission, which had to abandon its Moon landing after an explosion on board threatened the lives of the crew. My favourite Moon drama, though, would have to be First Man, Damien Chazelle's gripping account of the Apollo programme that was bafflingly overlooked at this year's Oscars. Ryan Gosling was well cast as Armstrong, the ice-cool, emotionally reserved test pilot who subsumes personal tragedy by focusing on the challenge of becoming the first man to walk on the Moon.
In Chazelle's film, we see up close the makeshift nature of those early rockets and capsules, developed at speed to keep ahead of the Russians and looking like they were held together with tin foil and spit. Only the bravest men would choose to be confined in them, and shot skyward at 700 miles-an-hour, on a wing and a prayer.
Top five moon movies
Le Voyage dans la Lune
The first (1902) film about the Moon, and surely the most delightful, Georges Méliès' whimsical, playful 10-minute short demonstrated perhaps for the first time the transformative possibilities of cinema.
While Apollo 11's 50th anniversary is all about celebrating Nasa's successes, Ron Howard's beautifully judged 1995 thriller hones in on a mission failure that almost became a disaster. Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as astronaut James Lovell, whose cool thinking proved invaluable when Apollo 13 had to abort its lunar landing.
In the Shadow of the Moon
Perhaps the most comprehensive visual account of the Apollo space programme, Christopher Riley and David Sington's 2007 documentary talked with eight of the 12 men who walked on the Moon about their experiences.
Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, announced his film-making talent with this 2009 paranoid thriller set on an automated lunar-mining station, where one man (Sam Rockwell) oversees the supply of helium to a beleaguered Earth. He's been there for three years and is nearing the end of his mission when a perfidious computer and a mental breakdown lead to all sorts of unpleasantness.
Oscar voters may not have liked it, but Damien Chazelle's dramatisation of the Apollo programme provides a gripping, seat-of-the-pants account of its successes and failures. A number of pilots died horribly while test-driving prototype rockets, and Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) almost joined them.