On September 12th 1962, President John F Kennedy made a speech that set out the objectives of the space program during the remainder of the decade. He asserted that America chose to strive for the goals of travelling through space, and for a manned moon landing, “Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Any number of astronauts in the movies will attest to just how bloody hard landing on the Moon can actually be. You never know what you’re going to find there. Whether your Moon landing involves escaped Kryptonian prisoners, a metaphysical confrontation with yourself or an inexplicable black monolith, movies have never served as attractive tourism films for the Moon.
In fact, a selling point in recent films, such as Transformers: Dark Of The Moon and Apollo 18, has been “the reason why we never went back” to the Moon. It could be to do with financing, and the lack of any discernible benefit in terms of resources up there, but still, cinema is full of reasons why a lunar excursion might not be the best idea for astronauts.
You’ll disturb the natives
Works of fiction such as Jules Verne’s From The Earth To The Moon, and HG Wells’ The First Men In The Moon predated the ambitions of the space race by a number of decades. When Georges Méliès created the first acknowledged science-fiction film, 1902’s A Trip To The Moon, it was a conflation of the aforementioned novels.
Alison McMahan has said, in an analysis of Méliès’ film, that it aims to “Show the illogicality of logical thinking.” Which is to say, it’s a teeny bit mental, and surprisingly violent to boot. The film depicts a gaggle of astronomers and oddly buxom marines propelled towards the Moon, via giant cannon. Upon landing, they impale the Man in the Moon in his eye. Not a great start to the expedition.
When they fall afoul of the Selenites, who turn out to be quite fragile insectoid creatures, they roundly batter the natives before escaping back to Earth for a big party. Avatar it ain’t, but it does serve as a whimsical expression of people’s preconceptions of space-travel, and particularly, a fascination with the Moon.
You might not be able to get back
Many years after Méliès depicted a slightly silly society on the Moon, then-unknown producer George Pal made Destination Moon, which was credited for its refreshingly realistic approach to space-travel. The film was made in 1950, almost two whole decades before the actual Moon landing.
And so the film pre-empts the 1957 launch of Sputnik by seven years, speculating about a space-race between the United States and Soviet Russia. This would actually transpire in later years, but the film’s rationale for the characters wanting to go to the Moon is to prevent the Russians from establishing a moon base first, realising that America couldn’t possibly defend against an attack from outer space.
Although they successfully put a man on the Moon, it emerges that the makers of the rocket miscalculated how much fuel was required, and the rocket is 100lbs too heavy to take off again. It seems like one of the four astronauts will have to stay behind in order for the rocket to return to Earth. Luckily, they eventually figure out a way around the weight problem.
Despite its generally optimistic ending, Destination Moon is realistic and technically minded enough that the prospect of disaster seems all too real, as one of the astronauts, Joe Sweeney, volunteers to plod weightlessly to his death. It’s really quite prescient filmmaking, mindful of the potential problems of space-travel rather than indulging in fantasy.
It’s never just a trip to the Moon, is it?
That ability to keep on striving for the next milestone isn’t always to mankind’s advantage. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Moon’s Tycho crater is the site for the discovery of TMA-1, a black monolith buried there millions of years ago. Dr Heywood Floyd is brought to the US moon base, Clavius, to investigate.
After learning that it’s not there for photo opportunities, Dr. Floyd discovers a strong radio signal is emanating from TMA-1 towards Jupiter. Although he doesn’t know it, the monoliths were created by unknown forces, to propel mankind’s development in the right direction. A mission to Jupiter is mounted, during which time the Discovery One’s supposedly infallible computer, HAL, goes nuts.
Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey novels, on which the film and its non-Kubrick sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact are based, divulge more of the shit that befalls Floyd as a result of these events. As the film version of 2010 has it, he regenerated into Roy Scheider and then got the blame for the whole Discovery One catastrophe.
Although mankind ultimately benefits from the influence of the monoliths and their mysterious creators, the tribulations of Floyd, and Dave Bowman, and how long they take to get to the beneficial part, is as good a case as any to just stay at home. You’ll only wind up travelling to the point of an entirely new species being born, anyway.
It’s lonely up there
Still, if mankind does find some resource of discernible value up there on the Moon, enough to simply be content with stationing someone up there and saying no more, that’s got to be a rubbish job. For one thing, it’s lonely – of which Sam Bell is well aware, when we meet him at the beginning of Moon.
As he approaches the end of a three-year contract, he’s less cognisant of the fact that his bosses have a shockingly low employee turnover rate for the job. And so it’s cold comfort when almost three years of isolation, with only his robot assistant GERTY for company, is broken by the appearance of another Sam Bell.
Duncan Jones’ science-fiction drama has roots in the genre fare of the 60s and 70s, like Silent Running and 2001, so it’s unsurprisingly that its general message should be that Space Is Bad. Fortunately, it allows for two stunning performances by Sam Rockwell, but on balance, you wouldn’t want to live there.
Other visitors might not be very friendly
In Moon, Sam discovers that there’s only one thing worse than being alone on the Moon, and that’s not being alone on the Moon. This realisation isn’t without precedent in sci-fi cinema, or even in animated films. Wallace and Gromit were introduced to the world when they took A Grand Day Out, going as far as the Moon to get some cheese.
Against all odds, it turns out the Moon is made of cheese, but seeing as how they’re also able to knock up a working rocket ship, in their shed, in the space of one Bank Holiday, why should we ever question their conviction? What they didn’t count on was the presence of a sociopathic robot Moon ranger who looks like an oven.
Considering they’re just a bloke and a dog, they do pretty well on their day out. Better, in fact, than the unfortunate astronauts we see at the beginning of Superman II. They’re just doing their geological surveys when Kryptonian super-criminals arrive and kill them.
Ursa, Non and General Zod are just acquainting themselves with the powers granted by our solar system when they happen across those three astronauts. It’s not so much one small step for man, as one massive smackdown on planet Houston.
In the end, at least the cooker only wanted to ski and keep the Moon clear of litter. When Kryptonians are around, your Moon experience is more likely to involve being affronted and then killed by perplexed alien bastards.
They cocked it up in reality, too
If you never went anywhere new because of stuff you saw in the media, you’d wind up being xenophobic on an intergalactic scale. Never mind those monolith things – you’ve read in the Daily Mail that some poor folks were murdered on the Moon by alien bastards!
No, if there’s really a reason why astronauts shouldn’t go to the Moon, it’s because reality was, at one point, just as dangerous as fiction. And handily, they made a film out of it, too, and called it Apollo 13.
In that film, Tom Hanks portrayed Jim Lovell, the astronaut who commanded the fateful mission of the title. An oxygen tank exploded while the ship was in orbit, and forced the crew to cancel its planned lunar landing. For four days, the crew endured power problems, which included loss of cabin heat, a malfunction in the carbon dioxide removal system, and a water shortage.
The mission may have been aborted, but the crew returned to Earth safely on April 17th 1970. Ron Howard’s film version is surprisingly tense, considering we know the astronauts’ journey ends happily, but you can bet there’s not a single person who watches it and says to themselves, “Wow, I want to go to the Moon.”
Doesn’t look very safe, does it? The fact is, cinema has not done a damn thing to make the case for further Moon missions, and Apollo 18, with its claims of veracity, doesn’t exactly look like a travelogue, either. I suppose it could be a spiritual sequel to Apollo 13, if not a numerical follow-up. They at least get to the Moon, and that’s where it goes wrong. It’s those alien bastards again.
Cinema’s astronauts have seemingly realised that their goals on the Moon are far harder than President Kennedy would ever have envisioned, and it coincides with space programs around the world being under-funded in the wake of the global recession.
Space travel doesn’t seem to capture the public imagination as it once did, but at least we’ve got movies to show us just how bloody scary it can be out there.