Charles T. "Chuck" Baker makes the least dignified astronaut entrance in cinematic history. He lands on Planet 51, plants an American flag, encounters life in the form of a "dog" that looks suspiciously like a mini-me version of the creature from Alien -- and promptly runs away, screaming like a little girl.
Baker, voiced by Dwayne Johnson in the amusing animated film that opens tomorrow, has a lot to learn about being an astronaut. Planet 51, aimed squarely and pleasantly at children, is ready to impart lessons about the true meaning of "the right stuff," not only for Baker, but also for mournful astronomer Lem (Justin Long), his unrequited love Neera (Jessica Biel), and the evil 1-2 punch of a a military leader (Gary Oldman) and a scientist (John Cleese). The film pays homage to a variety of sci-fi flicks, and the stylish, rounded curves of its character and production designs are reminiscent of the early 1950s, the grand era when astronauts first started popping up on the big screen.
In compiling this list, I was tempted to draw from the huge pool of space jockeys, ranging from Luke Skywalker to Captain Kirk, but decided instead to stick to a more traditional view of astronauts. Some, obviously, are more realistic than others.
You can't get much better than the real thing. David Singleton's documentary allows the Apollo astronauts to give voice to their hopes, fears, and memories of their dazzling missions to the moon, accompanied by rarely-seen archival footage. It's dazzling, mesmerizing, and ultimately humbling.p>
The Right Stuff
I absolutely adore this movie because it captures the spirit of adventure in post-World War II America. Mixing hardcore reality with softcore fantasy in its dream of flight slipping the bounds of Earth, Philip Kaufman's epic-length film always feels intimate, even as it blasts off into space with memorable "spam in a can" astronauts Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, and Lance Henriksen.
With "You Are There" immediacy, Ron Howard depicts the seat-gripping tension of the Apollo mission with a famous "problem." The scenes that truly shine are the ones with the astronauts, obviously, three men that must have felt utterly alone and far from home. Powerhouse performances by Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton seal the deal, with the added bonus of an earthbound Ed Harris.
On first glance, Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) may appear to be an unlikely space traveler, but a closer look reveals all the traits required for "the right stuff": courage, curiosity, and a raw, probing intelligence. Above all, there's that curiosity: What -- or who, if anything -- is out there?
Slow, methodical, and quiet, Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Poole (Gary Lockwood) are the antithesis of the action astronauts we've come to crave. They are, however, perfectly suited for the task at hand: voyaging through space for months at a time, too much excitement can be a bad thing.
George Pal's 1950 flick, based on a novel by Robert Heinlein, inspired a raft of imitators as the cinematic space race got underway. The astronomical artwork by Chesley Bonestell is gorgeous. The movie's dramatic flaws become more apparent with the passage of time, but its influence cannot be denied, and it still presents a lovely, 'gee whiz' view of the men who fly into space.
Apollo 13 was not, unfortunately, the first space-related disaster. In January 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed while strapped into Apollo 1 on the launching pad. With awkward timing, Marooned was released in December 1969, months after the first man landed on the moon, to remind everyone that things could still go wrong. Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, and the excitable Gene Hackman are the memorably marooned voyagers.
Widely derided, Brian DePalma's would-be thriller features a wonderful collection of adventuresome astronauts, from ill-fated mission commander Don Cheadle to the way too intense Gary Sinise to the devoted duo of Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen, waltzing in zero-gravity to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away."
Memorable doesn't have to mean good. In what ranks in my book as the very worst James Bond adventure, the British secret agent heads off into space to try and cash in on Star Wars. *sigh* Kudos, however, to whoever scraped the bottom of the barrel and returned with the idea of placing the towering Jaws (Richard Kiel) in an astronaut's uniform, making it possible for hero and enemy to battle against a backdrop of stars.
"To infinity, and beyond!" 'Nuff said.
Who are your most memorable movie astronauts?