The James Clayton Column: Hollywood Moon

James looks back on Hollywood's love-affair with Earth's lonely satellite...

Sam Rockwell in Moon

There’s been a lot of Moon-gazing going on lately. With last week’s eclipse over Asia and the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, the orbiting orb has held people’s attention, sent the collective mind back to the days of the space race and encouraged them to contemplate the crater-pocked crag that adorns the night sky.

Of course, this recent interest depends on the idea that Neil Armstrong’s steps on the lunar surface weren’t faked and that the whole 1969 endeavour wasn’t all an elaborate hoax designed purely stick it to Soviets in the Cold War or send conspiracy theorists into a frenzy. I don’t really believe that the Moon landing wasn’t genuine though, and not just because I’m scared that Buzz Aldrin will punch my lights out. If Neil Armstrong’s “small step” was shot in an Arizona studio, the footage would surely have been slicker and more cinematic; America would’ve made it a dazzling Hollywood epic that’d completely smash any threadbare propaganda film the USSR could stitch together.

NASA would’ve also inevitably cast some more compelling personalities to lead the production instead of the relatively humble trio that really made the Moon trip. The showbiz fizz is lacking in Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins (if we ignore Buzz’s brief foray into rapping on a Snoop Dogg record) and so without big name stars, explosions, alien threats and romantic subplots I’d say that, yes, the Apollo mission was authentic.

Instead of the pretty pedestrian footage we have of the Eagle landing, the powers-that-be would have crafted something more similar to 1950 movie Destination Moon which features Woody Woodpecker, some wooden actors and a more aggressive American imperialist attitude. It was refreshing to watch the ropey sci-fi feature recently to remind myself – as I got all enthused about the Moon landing in the face of 40th anniversary celebration – that it’s important to remain down to earth and not lose our heads in hype.

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For as much as the lunar landing was an amazing achievement and symbolic moment, it’s been a disappointment. The Apollo 11 mission may have been “one giant leap for mankind” but womankind? In no way did the Apollo 11 mission advance the cause of international feminism. What’s more, the lunar landing also disappointed dairy food devotees everywhere by affirming that our sole satellite isn’t made entirely of cheese.

Just as that trio left the Moon – albeit with a bit more litter – in the summer of ’69, the dull astronauts in Destination Moon similarly made their exit from the now-conquered new frontier. They don’t stick around and the Moon doesn’t inspire them, and considering how much peril and trouble they have to go through, the whole idea of heading to the satellite seems pointless and not worth the bother.

Enough with the nostalgia: let’s get some perspective. The Moon is neither something that humanity has mastered nor a romantic feature as suggested by Moulin Rouge or It’s a Wonderful Life (an opera-singing, moustachioed celestial face or something you can lasso in a bid to impress your lover). It’s a bloody great big bare lump of space rock that impacts upon conditions on Earth (in tidal patterns, for example). We should have due respect for the satellite in the sky and revere it. In fact, as shown by a fair few films, we should fear it.

As illustrated vividly in the vast number of werewolf movies out there, the full Moon turns humans into hair-raising beasts who’ll tear others limb from limb. It’s not a coincidence that the Latin word for “moon” is the root of such terms as “lunatic” and “lunacy”. In terms of actually getting off the ground and going there, it seems that Moon-trip movies never depict an entirely positive, problem-free experience.

On the basis of accumulated movie wisdom, Earthlings should stay at home and admire the overhanging orb from afar. Time and time again we’ve been told that blasting off into space can only result in death, danger and huge disaster. If you go beyond the stratosphere, you’ll only end up facing deadly alien enemies (like in, say, Alien), sociopathic computer systems (2001: A Space Odyssey) or ghosts of the Id and psychological torment wrought out of the displaced alienation and distorting effects of the cosmic void (Solaris).

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The Moon is no exception, as such charming miniature masterpieces as Le voyage dans la lune (a.k.a. A Trip to the Moon) and A Grand Day Out with Wallace & Gromit so succinctly and successfully remind us. In George Méliès’s pioneering cinema reel from 1902, the day-trippers to the Moon come to discover that their seemingly sweet and quaint destination is actually dangerous. Just as the jolly band of rocketeers are confronted and help captive by insectoid Moonmen, Wallace and Gromit’s stellar cheese tasting trip similarly turns terrifying as they encounter a psychotic coin-operated oven on wheels.

Forty years of NASA frustration and not colonising our orbiting satellite is not a bad thing if such frightening things as alien antagonists and crazed kitchen appliances await those who boldly go. Worried over astronaut safety and that humanity underestimates the ominous orb, I’d say it’s a good thing that a feature-length film, simply titled Moon, has touched down and graced cinema screens recently.

The low-budget sci-fi movie centres on the character Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell in a brilliant performance) who’s completely in isolation working on the extra-terrestrial crag with only a computer named GERTY for company. The fact that GERTY sounds reassuringly like Kevin Spacey and communicates via smiley emoticons can’t stave off Sam’s descent into despair that being on the Moon inevitably brings.

The lesson is this: look upon and admire the lunar surface from your secure little spot on Earth. Heck, even kid yourself that it’s a great big lump of celestial cheese or a smiling space soprano: Just don’t go there. I say that instead we should look to save on the huge resources required to launch rocket missions and prevent more astronauts from suffering Moon-inspired mental illness or malady. If memories of Apollo 11 encourage anything, it should be a cinema trip to see Moon, a movie through which you can fulfil lunar travel fantasies without fear.

James’ previous column can be found here.