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First Man is in cinemas now, in all its crashing, whooshing, non-flag-waving glory, reminding audiences afresh that the space race has served Hollywood remarkably well over the years. Even at its most scientifically credible, there’s an eternal streak of fantasy to the business of launching human beings far beyond Earth: for most of us, the sheer unimaginability of such a mission lends even the most prosaic space-travel stories a tingle of fascination.
Damien Chazelle’s gripping moon-landing drama can stand proudly upright in the astronaut canon, but it also left me hungry to revisit The Right Stuff (1983), which I, like many critics, had long regarded as Hollywood’s crowning achievement on the subject.
Philip Kaufman’s colossal, 192-minute study of the Mercury Seven astronauts selected for America’s first manned space flight is available to view on YouTube, among other online outlets, and I was thrilled to find its reputation unchallenged. Honouring the curiosity and swagger of Tom Wolfe’s source history, its intricate balance of rapt, skybound spectacle and scalpel-sharp political wit remains near-anomalous in its genre. Commercially it tanked on its initial release in 1983; it’s hard to imagine any major studio today permitting Kaufman to make a version of this epic story at once so cynical and starry-eyed.
Made a dozen years later, Apollo 13 is the more sensible, straight-arrow version of The Right Stuff – a different mission, given equivalently meticulous historical scrutiny – and that’s no bad thing. Streaming on NowTV, it’s certainly the best film to which director Ron Howard has ever put his name. His all-American squareness as a film-maker has never been more muscularly, nor more empathetically, applied than to this tense, throbbing dramatisation of Nasa’s ill-fated third moon mission, and the successful rescue they eventually clawed from its failure. The mechanics of space travel are realised here in juddering tactile detail – the film’s Oscars for editing and sound were hard-earned – and those nuts-and-bolts qualities hold Howard’s propensity for sentimentality perfectly in check.
If you’re after some direct prep work for First Man, however, you can’t do much better than David Sington’s excellent 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (available to watch via Amazon), which gathers 10 astronauts from the various Apollo missions to reflect on their experiences. It’s a simple enough concept, alternating those talking heads (in strikingly intimate close-up) with archive footage and reportage of Nasa’s effort across the missions, but their first-hand storytelling – some of it bullish, some of it rueful – makes it riveting. Don’t look for a line into Neil Armstrong’s mind, however: true to reclusive form, he declined to be interviewed. (For a glossier narrative overview of the Apollo saga, seek out HBO’s smart, perspective-hopping miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. It’s unavailable to stream on any major platform, though a brief online search turns up sketchier options.)
To go back to a time when walking on the moon truly was the stuff of science fiction in the popular imagination, Destination Moon (Amazon, again) is an irresistible curio from 1950. Though shot in iridescent Technicolor and graced with Oscar-winning, then state-of-the-art special effects, there’s a lurid, fear-mongering B-movie spirit to this story of a fraught lunar mission – prescient in some ways, hilariously off in others.
And to go back to where the dream began, Amazon is also streaming silent film pioneer Georges Méliès’s medium-changing, 14-minute wonder A Trip to the Moon. A milestone in fiction film-making and a one-of-a-kind alien object in 1902, its theatrically fantastical vision of space travel – by cannon, no less – and lunar life retains its winking magic. If you’ve only ever seen famous frames from it in cinema history books, treat yourself to the whole daffy thing. In his own way, Méliès was exploring new realms as boldly as any spaceman.
New to streaming & DVD this week
Ocean’s 8 (Warner Bros, 12)
Sharp tailoring, star power and high spirits are the powering forces of this female-led spinoff of the Rat Pack-originated heist franchise – which means not much has changed. Kicky fun ensues.
The Happy Prince (Lionsgate, 15)
Rupert Everett was born to play Oscar Wilde, and he gives it everything he’s got in this tricksy, ornately structured biopic. He perhaps wasn’t born to direct it too – it’s all a bit fussy – but the performance is the thing.
Generation Wealth (Dogwoof, 18)
A disappointment from docmaker Lauren Greenfield, this diffuse follow-up to her capitalism critique The Queen of Versailles sets up promising angles of inquiry before getting bogged down in self-analysis.
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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Streaming: where to find the best space films | Film