Tom Hanks has a thing about the Apollo program. I suppose you could say I do too. I’ve been interested in NASA and spaceflight since I was young, but what really what set me on my current path of obsession was the Hanks-produced and -introduced HBO mini-series From The Earth To The Moon from 1998. It was extraordinary television, dramatic and intelligent. Only after that did I dive into Apollo 13 in earnest. It was one of the first DVD’s I ever owned and it still is the benchmark with which I test new AV gear at home. (Pay attention to the surround sound field as the camera pans along the fuel pipes just before liftoff.) I treated Apollo 13 as a kind of alternate chapter to From The Earth To The Moon, even though the film preceded the mini-series by three years.
So, Hanks is back at it with Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D, an IMAX 3D short film. Like most IMAX it is a temporary fun, not exactly satisfying after the fact. Add in the 3D glasses — something I have not worn since Jaws 3D in the 1980’s I’m pretty sure — and you have enough gimmicks to truly stack the deck against the show. You really can’t tell the story of Apollo in 55 minutes and you certainly don’t have elbow room for narrative arcs so what Magnificent Desolation aims for is merely to make you feel like you are walking on the moon. This it achieves. My four-year-old was reaching out to grab the moondust that was kicked out into the audience via 3D. The best effect was the now-typical pan way out (ala Titanic) from the lander to a very broad shot of just how alone the astronauts actually were, not a shot that any Apollo-era photo could ever provide. The only aspect of drama in the whole thing was a play off this loneliness where they enacted an emergency scenario, thankfully never used in six moon landings, where the astronauts were stranded after a rover malfunction kilometers from the lander. One of the astronaut’s oxygen was low and they had to hoof it back to home so they buddy-breathed their way back to spacecraft. It was very well done, but the whole time I was thinking that when we do go back to the moon (and by “we” I guess I mean the Chinese) it will be a hell of a lot easier to fake a moon landing than Capricorn One. We won’t even need O.J. Simpson.
In the end it was satisfying, but only in the way that an amusement park ride is. Cheap thrill, go home, forget about it — except to blog it. The show interspersed a bunch of actual footage of the landings, but because of the resolution difference — 1960’s-era film versus six stories of IMAX screen — meant that the footage was shown picture-in-picture as a small overlay. This will be the fate of so much pre-HD footage in the future, jarring you out of the experience merely because the effect is so low-res.
Magnifcent Desolation had a bit of an agenda too. They interviewed kids to see what they knew, mostly focusing on what they didn’t, about the Apollo program. One child, a young latina, said she’d love to go to the moon. Her story and her crayon drawing of how she would get there was dramatized at the very end in a future scenario where said child was the commander of an extensive moon base, making ample reference to the fact that humans have not stepped foot on our satellite in over thirty years. It won’t change the fact that there is no public will to do this any time soon, but it was powerful nonetheless.
So, I recommend this if you can see it in an IMAX theater. If not, the DVD will underwhelm. Sorta like saying, if you can buy a ride to orbit, do it. Otherwise, wait for the movie.