Flying with giants: Review of Apollo 11

Oh bliss. Bliss and heaven.

As the lunar landscape rushed past below the LEM I noticed how fast my heart was beating as I sat there in the IMAX theater. The grey rocks came closer and closer. Speed was dropping. 1201 alarm. 1202 alarm. I clenched the leather armrests while the the beat of the bass increased as Neil Armstrong took over control of the Lunar lander and dodged crashing into a boulder field with less than thirty seconds of fuel left. I was in for the ride to the Moon on Apollo 11 – the motion picture.

What a goddamn phenomenal journey this movie takes you on. On the surface it sounds plain and perhaps boring: Three astronauts board the capsule, they leave Earth, fly to the Moon, two of them land on it, rendezvous with the third in the command module and return to the Earth together – just as they had planned and trained for. But even if you’ve watched When we left Earth, Moon Machines, Apollo 13 and First Man, Apollo 11 is a portrayal like you’ve never seen it before, unless you were there yourself. Five out of five!

The quality of the footage that director Todd Douglas Miller and his team have used is unlike anything, I have ever seen from the era. The opening shots of the Saturn V, as it rolls out onto launch pad 39A, the people gathering to watch the launch and NASAs technicians, as they help Neil, Buzz and Michael suit up for their journey, are crisp as if they had been shot yesterday with a modern HD camera and yet the colors have that soft touch that only 1960s film could produce. You feel as if you could have been there, like in those black and white photos that Marina Amaral breathed new life into by colorizing them. Many of the shots before the astronauts go into orbit around the Earth come from 70 millimeter film rolls that have been lying around in an archive for 50 years. They have never been shown before on the big screen.

There is no modern footage of Cape Canaveral to break the immersion of being there 50 years ago, no wrinkled astronauts or mission controllers in interviews about how it was, no new and sleek 3D graphics. The words are those that were spoken right as it happened, the action is as it unfolded. It is difficult to call Apollo 11 a documentary, when it feels so much more like an experience. 

Three scenes shine vividly in my memory; Liftoff and Staging, Powered Descent and Rendez Vous. All three run uninterrupted by cuts and last for what feels like an eternity, in the best way you can imagine. In the case of Liftoff and Staging of the Saturn V I am tempted to say that it felt almost… orgasmic. The column of supersonic flames expands out from the five F1 engines, the tip of the rocket punches through first the sound barrier and then Max Q, while an epic bass-track hammers a slow rhythm the entire way to orbit:

Oh bliss. Bliss and heaven. Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. I knew such lovely pictures.

A Clockwork Orange

Even in the case of some of the more iconic footage, the creators have had to use to show Neil and Buzz step out onto the Moon, they’ve managed to dig deep and find pictures that I have never noticed before. For example, in one still image, you see Neils face behind the protective glass, as he stands close to the flag. The realization that astronauts actually walked on the moon strikes so much harder, when you get a glimpse through the anonymous visor and see a human underneath the space suit.

I do have criticisms but they are few. In the IMAX theatre it could sometimes be hard to discern the dialogue between Houston and Apollo 11 with all the authentic radio static. After a while it was wearing on my eardrums a bit.

Also, I have one small nitpick – during the countdown, they kept returning to a shot from the launch pad looking up on the Saturn V without any vapor pouring out from the cryogenic tanks. Obviously, nobody were on the launch pad during the countdown, besides the astronauts in the capsule, and therefore the creators have had to use footage from before the rocket was fueled to fill in while tension builds up. Only rocket enthusiasts will notice this detail, however.

This is a movie where you stay seated for the credits, not least because they roll with post-landing footage of ticker-tape parades and engineers building the next rocket, the next capsule and the next lander. In a stroke of genius the credits end with John F. Kennedys speech at Rice Stadium, Texas, on a hot day in 1961, where the journey truly started:

“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.”

They did it. They were bold. Go experience their boldness in theaters while you can.


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