IT costs more than $20 million to make an average movie in Hollywood today. This sounds like a lot, but how about $42 billion? That's how much it cost to launch nine manned flights to the moon between 1968 and 1972. And since the astronauts were also filmmakers - shooting footage of the moon, the Earth, and deep space as they hurtled toward their destination - you might think of that $42 billion as a gigantic movie budget. Happily, it's now benefiting all of us in a new film called ``For All Mankind,'' made up of carefully chosen shots from those epic voyages. It's now traveling to theaters around the US after running in the best-documentary category of this year's Academy Awards race.
``For All Mankind'' was directed by Al Reinert, a former journalist who obviously has a huge enthusiasm for space travel. To make the picture, he went into the NASA archives, where no less than 6 million feet of film has been stored from the Apollo and Gemini programs. He also hunted down audio tapes from the space voyages, even finding Neil Armstrong's first words from the moon in a Florida warehouse. The next step was going through all this material to find the most useful images and sounds. According to the distributor of ``For All Mankind,'' that meant viewing all 6 million feet of celluloid before deciding which shots would be included in the finished movie.
There were more challenges to come for Mr. Reinert and his crew. For one, the original film stock - which actually made the journey to the moon and back - was restricted by NASA to the vaults where it was stored. The filmmakers had to build an optical printer on the spot, remove the original film from its frozen storage in liquid nitrogen, and blow it up to the 35-mm size used in theater projectors, one frame at a time. That's a lot of frames, since 24 of them zoom through a movie camera every second. Reproducing them took more than 18 months, but eventually the job was done, including digital rerecording of the audio tapes.
Did all that work pay off?
The answer has to be both yes and no. ``For All Mankind'' won't teach you much that's new about space travel. If you keep up with the subject in newspapers, you've read most of the facts and figures before, and the movie isn't strictly factual anyway - it combines film from nine lunar missions into one composite mission that never really happened just like this. And now that ``The Right Stuff'' has shown us the space program from unexpected angles - which happened more effectively in the marvelous book by Tom Wolfe than in the disappointing film version - it seems essential to treat this subject with a sense of irony and even humor, of which ``For All Mankind'' doesn't have much. Still, images from beyond our atmosphere can be dazzlingly beautiful, and there's something very special about knowing these shots were filmed ``on location'' in places most of us will never visit.
The movie also has a listenable score by Brian Eno, whose work is often called ``space music'' even when it isn't accompanying pictures like these. ``For All Mankind'' isn't a great film, but it's lovely to watch and enjoyable to hear.
And how often do you find a movie that literally dropped in from outer space?