Space movies: the next generation

'2001' made space travel look effortless and simple. With 'Alien' it became dirty and beset by bad industrial relations. Now 'Apollo 13' has added something new: disaster.
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The Independent Culture
About the time that Jim Lovell was training for the Apollo 13 mission, that first great adult space film was on general release - 2001: A Space Odyssey. The definitive space movie for grown-ups showed space travel as effortless, futuristic and optimistic (even if we weren't intellectually capable of understanding the happy ending when we got there).

A quarter of a century later, we're now a lot closer to 2001 than to 1969 and the space movie has come a long way since Kubrick's world of squeaky-clean spacesuits, flashing lights and vast, calm, humming machinery. Apollo 13, the latest space shot (opening in the UK next month), is the very antithesis of 2001. Once upon a time space was in the future and easy. Now it's in the past, and it's Damn Difficult.

Ron Howard's new film is remarkable in many ways, but two things that will strike an audience straight away are its fashions (particularly the hair and baby-doll dresses inflicted on poor Kathleen Quinlan, as Marilyn Lovell) and the woeful lack of modern technology. Fortunately, Houston in the Nixon era was a world that had avoided the worst excesses of 1960s psychedelia; but also absent are LCDs, CD-Roms, PCs and all the other new-fangled gadgetry that we take for granted in booking a return ticket on the 125, let alone a one-way ticket to the moon.

Apollo 13 makes a deliberate point of being stuck in the past. When Ron Howard's Mission Control is calculating re-entry, they do it with chalk on a blackboard. Fuel consumption is worked out on a slide rule, and the stricken ship is repaired with gaffer tape. All that is missing is that Sixties icon Valerie Singleton at Capcom telling Tom Hanks how to get back to Earth using a roll of sticky-backed plastic.

But as a Damn Difficult movie, Apollo 13 doesn't really represent a new departure for Hollywood; rather, this is where space travel has been heading for several years. After the cerebral serenity of 2001, the only place to go was downhill - and fast. Alien broke new ground in 1979 by showing space as dirty and riven by bad industrial relations. And by the time we got to Alien 3, space had become positively medieval, with technology reduced to a few blazing torches and a fiery furnace.

Close Encounters and ET followed a similar path to show how difficult it all was. Communication with alien intelligence was no longer Keir Dullea being effortless and mystical in 2001, but Richard Dreyfuss doing strange things with shaving cream and a dumpy extra-terrestrial trying to phone home with a few bits of string and a tin can. Even 2010, the sequel to 2001, only managed a happy ending by lassoing two space-craft together and making a run for it.

But where Apollo 13 does break new ground is in bringing the techniques of a disaster movie into space. Significantly, the film opens with the grisly death of the astronaut Virgil Grissom in Apollo 6. In The Right Stuff, Hollywood's 1983 hymn of praise to space exploration, this early Apollo fatality was reduced to a mere end-caption, but in Apollo 13 it is a defining image that haunts the film. When the capsule door first closes on Jim Lovell and his crew, the bolts click shut with the same dread finality that often accompanies the shutting of cabin doors in those hoary old "somehow we're gonna get those people down" Airport films.

The menace of machinery pervades Apollo 13. Camera angles tilt up at the enormity of the caterpillar tracks taking the Saturn rocket to its launch site, leaving men dwarfed by comparison. At other times the camera lingers significantly on gauges, buttons and controls. Needles twitch, ready to spiral down out of control. At any moment, any one of them could capriciously endanger your life.

The portents that accompany the launch of Apollo 13 really did occur - Marilyn Lovell loses her wedding ring down a shower and dreams about Jim being blown out into space - but they are also the stock-in-trade of the Airport film. The heavily pregnant wife of the astronaut Fred Haise is another familiar image from the disaster genre. There is nothing more poignant, and significant, than take-off watched by a woman who wonders if the father of her unborn child is coming back. All that is missing is the captain's dog looking up and whining in the knowledge that his master's life is hanging by a thread.

It is a tribute to the film-makers that they had enough confidence in Jim Lovell's book not to introduce the whining dog, but then history has handed Hollywood the script for a disaster movie ready-made. Even the actual words of Gene Kranz at Mission Control - "We've never lost an American in space yet, and we're not going to on my watch" - could have come straight out of Airport, Airport 75, 77, 80, or even Airplane for that matter.

The American disaster movie usually has some venality or political manoeuvring to counterpoint the heroic struggle, and in the case of Apollo 13 this is provided by President Nixon's press corps badgering to get a quotable assessment of the crew's chances while Gene Kranz is Trying To Do His Job.

Similarly, an indignant swipe is taken at the callous media, who ignore Apollo 13's live broadcast from space but turn up on Marilyn Lovell's lawn in force when her husband is about to die of carbon monoxide poisoning in the stranded space-craft. We've seen much of this before, although, to be fair, we've rarely seen it done as well.

Quite what the green-lighting of Apollo 13 says about the American film industry is open to interpretation. Although it borrows heavily from the genre, this isn't a disaster movie in the sense that those monsters of the 1970s were. The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and Jaws were American disaster movies of the hubristic school. In that great decade of disaster, the natural world revenged itself continually on American capitalism. Men who built too high or too skimpily, or who opened the beaches to tourists regardless of the risks, were forever being punished for their greed by the forces of untamed nature. Apollo 13 is not the revenge of implacable space on foolish mankind. In a real disaster movie the mayhem is attributable to human weakness, but in Apollo 13 the cause of the malfunction is bad luck and a mere footnote to the film. No, this movie is a eulogy to the courage, resourcefulness and camaraderie of all the good guys pulling together. This is a "somehow we're gonna get those guys down" film of the old school, but with effects of a very high order.

But, positive as that might seem, Apollo 13 does represent a diminution of American gung-ho. Space is no longer the final frontier; the sky is no longer the limit. What is up there is cold and dangerous and the most we can hope for is to get our people back in one piece.

More than 25 years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apollo 13 is saying, like Marilyn Lovell, that actually it's safer to stay at home.

'Apollo 13' is released in the UK on 22 September