Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Enter the Dragon: Space Travel American-Style

Frankly, I’m too heartsick right now to focus on what’s surely on the minds of most Americans: the sad, horrible aftermath of racist actions by four cops in Minneapolis. Instead I’ll try to concentrate on the one good thing that happened this past weekend. I mean the successful launch of the Dragon, sending two American astronauts up to the International Space Station. It’s the first time since 2011 that astronauts have been launched from American soil, and the first time in history that a private spacecraft has been used to launch humans into orbit. A triumph all around for SpaceX, whose founder Elon Musk has recently generated far more negative headlines for demanding that, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, his Tesla factory be allowed to violate state safe-at-home orders.

Hollywood has long had a yen to make cinema in outer space. Fascination with the challenge of filming space travel has led to movies of all sorts, both the goofy (like Dark Star, which began as a student film, jumpstarting the career of John Carpenter) and the high-minded. When Ron Howard shot Apollo 13 in 1995, NASA so badly wanted an accurate record of the aborted moon mission that it allowed for Zero-G filming on the training jet fondly nicknamed “the vomit comet.” These days CGI allows for a far more elaborate suggestion of weightlessness, as seen in such films as Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian. But I’m still personally partial to Roger Corman’s depiction of space travel on the cheap, going all the way back to 1958’s War of the Satellite. This quickie Corman response to the launch of Sputnik is hilarious if seen in the company of knowledgeable aerospace engineers. And it’s pretty funny no matter your level of outer-space expertise.

Somewhat in the Corman spirit of fast and cheap filmmaking using whatever resources are available is a very short film that fairly proclaims itself  “the first sci-fi movie filmed in space.” This 2008 space oddity (see below) is grandiosely titled Apogee of Fear! Its credited cast consists of six astronauts—both American and Russian—aboard a Soyuz TMA 13 in near earth orbit in 2008. (Somehow, despite the three Russian names in the credits, only one apparently shows up on camera.) There’s something of a plot, though not much. Suffice it to say that the story involves dropping oxygen levels, weightless space-juggling, the search for aliens, and a cameo appearance by the director’s mother. Highlights include some gorgeous out-the-window space photos, a score that would give John Williams pause, and some jokey credits meant to amuse space nerds. We’re warned at the start that “some material may be too advanced for developing worlds,” and that the film “contains Krell Physics, Black Obelisks, and Klaatu Barada Nikto.”  .(Yes, see 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.) All hail second-generation astronaut Richard Garriott who directed, produced, and starred in this oddball spaceball gem.

Meanwhile, I would be remiss to ignore the passing of Larry Kramer, writer and activist, who survived 30 years following an AIDS diagnosis. Hollywood remembers Kramer as a talented screenwriter who was Oscar-nominated for adapting D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love into a 1969 film directed by Ken Russell. And Kramer’s own 1985 stage play, The Normal Heart, which bravely showcased the scourge of AIDS, eventually became a 2014 TV drama. But Kramer was best known as a man who wouldn’t keep quiet about injustices done to the gay community. His outspoken championing of AIDS-related medical issues through such organizations as Act Up is a model for how to use protest in a constructive way.

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