Hollywood Shoots The Moon: 117 Years Of Lunar Landings At The Movies

Jul 19, 2019
Originally published on July 19, 2019 2:48 pm

As a college sophomore, I knew exactly what the Apollo astronauts would find when they arrived on the moon: a desolate rockscape, craters shining white in reflected earthglow — and a big, black monolith.

Stanley Kubrick showed us all of that in the top-grossing movie of 1968 — 2001: A Space Odyssey — a full 15 months before Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. And even Kubrick was late to the party: Moviegoers had been heading moonward from pretty much the moment there were filmmakers to lead the way.

In 1902, Georges Méliès led an expedition in the 13-minute Trip to the Moon, one of the first films with an actual plot. It was not long on science: French astronauts climbed into a bullet-shaped capsule, were loaded into a cannon by a line of bathing beauties and got shot into space, landing smack in the eye of the Man-in-the-Moon.

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But it didn't take long for moviemakers to start getting things more right. As early as 1929, Fritz Lang, after consulting with scientists, was depicting not a moon cannon, but what would actually be needed — a multistage rocket — in his film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon). German scientists were so pleased that in World War II, they painted the film's logo on their first V-2 rocket.

And then H.G. Wells got into the act with his script for Things to Come (1936), in which a young woman ventures into space. The real world wouldn't catch up with that notion for decades.

In 1950's Destination Moon, a group of wealthy businessmen insist that only the private sector could accomplish a visit to the moon. "The vast amount of brains, talents, special skills and research facilities necessary for this project are not in the government," one character insists. "Only American industry can do this job!"

This was the McCarthy era and capitalism was the answer to a Red Scare question that no one needed to ask. Again, from the dialogue: "The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth! That, gentleman, is the most important military fact of this century!"

Quite a few of the film's other "facts" were equally fanciful (see the trailer below), but Destination Moon had its feet planted a lot more firmly on the ground than most of that era's science-fiction epics did.

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With the Soviets launching Sputnik in the 1950s, audiences were certainly thinking about what might be up there. And Hollywood was giving them everything from Bugs Bunny (in 1948's Haredevil Hare) to an immortal classic about, well, Cat-Women of the Moon (1953).

This sort of silliness is what prompted Stanley Kubrick to say a decade later that he wanted to make "the first science-fiction film that isn't considered trash." He went to great lengths in 2001: A Space Odyssey to explain the physics of space travel. And because his film was so popular, the public knew what to expect when NASA finally got to the moon's surface.

When the documentary Moonwalk One, using footage from the Apollo 11 mission, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, it was pretty clear that Hollywood had been outflanked. It was hard to top the real thing, especially when the whole world had seen it on TV.

Before we landed on the moon, movies had speculated about what we would find. Now that we knew what we would find, however, movies started making jokes. In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Sean Connery's 007 stumbled on a facility in the desert that was faking a moonwalk. (James Bond had no trouble evading actor-astronauts who were bouncing in slow motion around a studio moonscape.)

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Kid flicks like Stowaway to the Moon (1975) and Space Camp (1986) traded on children's enthusiasm for NASA. And a couple of animated cheese fans, Wallace and Gromit, decided in A Grand Day Out (1989) that they wanted a "taste" of the landscape.

But these were all goofs. It wasn't until more than 20 years had gone by — a full generation — that filmmakers began to deal realistically with moon missions again, never more effectively than in an award-winning thriller about the real-life mission that had given the world a new catchphrase: "Houston, we have a problem."

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The film Apollo 13 came out in 1995 and was hugely popular. But by that time, the last moonwalk was decades old. And there was no new material for other true-life films to play with. Besides — realism about the moon? With fictional stories taking audiences to galaxies far, far away?

No, what Hollywood served up was fantasy — Dr. Evil's moon base in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and the villain Gru's plan to shrink the moon in Despicable Me (2010).

The notion of "the-moon-as-bad-guy-playground" became a thing in movies as varied as Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), the horror flick Apollo 18 released the same year (there were only 17 Apollo missions), and an evil-corporation thriller simply titled Moon (2009). And someone thought it was worth spending $100 million to make 2002's The Adventures of Pluto Nash. (For that money, they could almost have sent star Eddie Murphy into space for real — might've been smarter, since no one saw the movie.)

By then, though, a pattern had developed. Just as it had taken a full generation before Hollywood re-created a real lunar mission in Apollo 13, it took another generation before the film industry came around again.

This time it was 2018's First Man, which traced Neil Armstrong's path to that giant leap — particularly in the Gemini missions that preceded Apollo. In so doing, it found plenty of drama, both in Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, pinwheeling through space in a capsule, and in Claire Foy as Armstrong's wife, confronting NASA officials who withheld information from her: "You're a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood!" she says. "You don't have anything under control!"

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That moment summed up — better than the film's thundering Saturn rockets, and its state-of-the-art effects — what all these movies have been about: humankind looking up at the moon with childlike wonder, and dreaming of traveling there.

Now we could — such travel was filled with possibility, and risk, and in Hollywood's telling, vivid cinematic thrills. But the real drama of going to the moon was — and remains — the human drama.

Nina Gregory edited the broadcast version of this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, NASA sent a man to the moon. Critic Bob Mondello reminds us that Hollywood got there first.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: College sophomore me knew exactly what the Apollo astronauts would find when they arrived on the moon - desolate rockscape, craters shining white in reflected Earth glow and a big, black monolith.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY")

MONDELLO: Stanley Kubrick showed us all of that in the most popular movie of 1968, "2001: A Space Odyssey," a full 14 months before Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. And even Kubrick was late to the party. Moviegoers had been heading moonward from pretty much the moment there were filmmakers to lead the way. In 1902, George Melies led an expedition in the 13-minute "Trip To The Moon," one of the first films with an actual plot. It was not long on science. French astronauts climbed into a bullet-shaped capsule, got loaded into a cannon by a line of bathing beauties and got shot into space landing smack in the eye of the man in the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A TRIP TO THE MOON")

MONDELLO: But it didn't take long for moviemakers to start getting things right. As early as 1929, Fritz Lang, after consulting with scientists, was depicting not a moon cannon, but what would actually be needed, a multi-stage rocket in his film "Frau Im Mond." German scientists were so pleased that in World War II they painted the film's logo on their first V-2 rocket. And then H.G. Wells got into the act with his script for "Things To Come."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THINGS TO COME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Why did you let your daughter dream of going on this man moon journey?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Because I love her.

MONDELLO: Note that it's a woman going into space in 1936. The real world wouldn't catch up with that notion for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THINGS TO COME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Will they come back?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yes, and go again and again till the landing is made and the moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.

MONDELLO: Indeed, it was. And it was quickly clear that it was the beginning of something expensive. Happily, with a little prodding, postwar industrialists could be persuaded to finance it in 1950's "Destination Moon."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTINATION MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Can you imagine me going before a meeting to my stockholders and reporting that I'd put millions into a trip to the moon? Why, son, they'd lynch me.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) If we want to stay in business, we have to build this ship.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) If it's that important a project, why doesn't the government undertake it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) The vast amount of brains, talents, special skills and research facilities necessary for this project are not in the government.

MONDELLO: Ouch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTINATION MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Only American industry can do this job. And American industry must get to work now, just as we did in the last war.

MONDELLO: This was the McCarthy era, and capitalism was the answer to a Red Scare question no one needed to ask.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTINATION MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) The race is on, and we'd better win it. Because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth. That gentleman is the most important military fact of this century.

MONDELLO: Quite a few of the film's other facts were also fanciful, but "Destination Moon" had its feet planted a lot more firmly on the ground than most of that era's science fiction epics.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) How does it feel, gentlemen, to behold a sight no human eyes have ever seen before?

MONDELLO: Audiences didn't actually get an answer to that question in Jules Verne's "From The Earth To The Moon" because the studio ran out of money before they could film the lunar scenes. But with the Soviets launching Sputnik in the 1950s, audiences were certainly thinking about what might be up there. And Hollywood was giving them everything from Bugs Bunny...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAREDEVIL HARE")

MEL BLANC: (As Bugs Bunny) I'm alone on the moon.

MONDELLO: ...To an immortal classic about...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As narrator) A lost moon city of alluring, ferocious cat-women.

MONDELLO: "Cat-Women Of The Moon."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As narrator) Theirs is the fevered fury of life without love, goading them to lure men into the den of bloodthirsty moon monsters.

MONDELLO: This sort of silliness is what prompted Stanley Kubrick to say a decade later that he wanted to make the first science fiction film that isn't considered trash. He went to great lengths in "2001: A Space Odyssey" to explain the physics of space travel. And because his film was so popular, the public knew what to expect...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MOONWALK ONE")

NEIL ARMSTRONG: OK. I'm going to step off the LM now.

MONDELLO: ...When NASA got to the moon's surface.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MOONWALK ONE")

ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

MONDELLO: That footage is in "Moonwalk One," a documentary completed just months after the lunar landing, and when it premiered at the Cannes Film Fest in 1971, it was pretty clear that Hollywood had been outflanked. Hard to top the real thing, especially when the whole world had seen it on TV. Before we'd landed on the moon, movies speculated about what we'd find. Now that we knew what we'd find, movies made jokes. In "Diamonds Are Forever," Sean Connery's 007...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) There he is. Come on.

MONDELLO: ...Stumbled on a facility in the desert that was faking a moonwalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) What the hell is this? Stop him, Harry.

MONDELLO: Bond had no trouble evading actor astronauts, who were bouncing in slow motion around a studio moonscape. Kid flicks, like "Space Camp" and "Stowaway To The Moon," traded on children's enthusiasm for NASA, and a couple of animated cheese fans, Wallace and Gromit, decided in "A Grand Day Out" they wanted a taste of the landscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A GRAND DAY OUT")

PETER SALLIS: (As Wallace) Mmm. I don't know, lad. It's like no cheese I've ever tasted.

MONDELLO: But these were all goofs. It wasn't until more than 20 years - a full generation had gone by - that filmmakers began to deal realistically again with moon missions, never more effectively than in an award-winning thriller about the real-life mission that had given the world a new catchphrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "APOLLO 13")

TOM HANKS: (As Jim Lovell) Houston, we have a problem.

MONDELLO: The film "Apollo 13" came out in 1995 and was hugely popular. But by that time, the last moonwalk was decades old and there was no new material for other true-life films to play with. Besides, realism about the moon with fictional stories taking audiences to galaxies far, far away? No. What Hollywood served up was fantasy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME")

MIKE MYERS: (As Austin Powers) Mission control, the swinger has landed. Yeah.

MONDELLO: Austin Powers, and despicable Gru and his minions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESPICABLE ME")

STEVE CARELL: (As Gru) The plan is simple. I fly to the moon. I shrink the moon. I sit on the toilet with - what?

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: And the moon as bad-guy playground became a thing in movies as varied as "Transformers III," the horror flick "Apollo 18" - there were 17 Apollo missions - and an evil corporation thriller, simply titled, "Moon." And someone thought it was worth spending a hundred-million dollars to make this little epic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As narrator) There is a giant rock called the moon...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As narrator) And in the year 2087, its future will be in the hands of one man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EDDIE MURPHY: (As Pluto Nash, laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF C AND C MUSIC FACTORY SONG, "GONNA MAKE YOU SWEAT (EVERYBODY DANCE NOW)")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As narrator) Eddie Murphy is...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character) Pluto Nash?

MONDELLO: For the money they invested in "The Adventures Of Pluto Nash," they could nearly have sent Eddie Murphy into space. Might have been smarter, since almost no one saw the movie. By then though, a pattern had developed. Just as it had taken a full generation before Hollywood recreated a real lunar mission in "Apollo 13," it took another generation before the film industry came around again. This one was called "First Man," and last year, in tracing Neil Armstrong's path to that giant leap, particularly in the Gemini missions that preceded Apollo, it found plenty of drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST MAN")

RYAN GOSLING: (As Neil Armstrong) Meter 200 and rising.

MONDELLO: Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong confronting a capsule that was pinwheeling in space...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST MAN")

GOSLING: (As Neil Armstrong, breathing heavily).

MONDELLO: ...Claire Foy, as Armstrong's wife, confronting NASA officials who'd cut off public access to communications.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST MAN")

KYLE CHANDLER: (As Deke) Jan, the ship is stable. They're going to be all right.

CLAIRE FOY: (As Jan Armstrong) Fine. Turn the box back on.

CHANDLER: (As Deke) On their security protocol...

FOY: (As Jan Armstrong) Well, I don't give a damn. I've got a dozen cameras on my front lawn, Deke. Do you want me telling them what's going on?

CHANDLER: (As Deke) Jan, you have to trust us. We've got this under control.

FOY: (As Jan Armstrong) No, you don't. All these protocols and procedures to make it seem like you have it under control - but you're a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don't have anything under control.

MONDELLO: And that summed up, better than the film's thundering Saturn rockets and state-of-the-art of the art effects, what all of these movies had been about, humankind looking up at the moon with childlike wonder and dreaming of traveling there. Now we could, which was filled with possibility and risk, and in Hollywood's telling, vivid cinematic thrills. But the real drama of going to the moon was and remains the human drama.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY ME TO THE MOON")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Fly me to the moon. Let me play among the stars. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.