When did your dreams of becoming an astronaut die? Was it when you just couldn't get a handle on advanced physics? Maybe you realized that you'd get claustrophobic sitting in a tin can far above the world. Perhaps you were unlucky enough to watch the Challenger or Columbia disasters and thought, "I want a job where death isn't a real possibility." For me, I knew I'd never be a rocket man after I grew taller than the NASA height restriction of 5'11" (though it's now been raised to 6'2"). For Ultima video game creator Richard Garriott, who dreamed of exploring outer space since he was a child, it was when he found out he was nearsighted.

But since he's a self-made multimillionaire and son of a former NASA Scientist-Astronaut, Richard Garriott wasn't going to let a vision problem stand in his way of traveling to outer space. Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission is the culmination of one man's life-long effort to go where only a few have gone before.
Thanks to Russia and $30 million, Richard Garriott gets the opportunity to fly to space, and thanks to director Mike Woolf and his crew, we get to see every step of the journey. From preliminary tests in the states to a year of difficult training in Russia's (formerly secret) Star City, Woolf gets incredible access and accurately shows that while Garriott may be a space tourist (or American Ca$h-monaut), he won't be a live-action Homer Simpson sent up to garner publicity and lounge around in zero gravity. In addition to learning Russian, perfecting hundreds of safety and operation drills, undergoing rigorous fitness training, practicing wilderness survival, and memorizing the layouts of both Soyuz TMA-13 and the International Space Station, Garriott must prepare for experiments he must conduct while in space. Throughout all of this earthbound foreplay, Woolf shows Garriott full of excitement, with the earnestness of Billy Bob Thornton's astronaut farmer and a Richard Branson-sized bank account. Every day he's powered by the thought of, "I get to go to space! I actually get to fly to outer space!!"

While the film's entertaining as the story of a man's trip to space, it's more effective as a son's trip to space. Owen Garriott flew both Skylab 3 and STS-9 missions and as the loving, experienced father watching the next generation follow in his footsteps, he and Garriott form one of the most touching father/son relationships I've seen in a long time. Owen's present from training, launch and re-entry and it's apparently that each man deeply inspires and is proud of the other.

As Russian space achievements are touted and the launch date approaches, Woolf primes the audience for a payoff that really delivers with incredible, first-hand shuttle footage. Brian Satterwhite and John Constant's score, at first lively and respectful, kicks in with a sense of galactic wonder once Garriott takes control of the camera.

It's no wonder that Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission won the SXSW 2010 Audience Award for Spotlight Premiers. Woolf's film reawakens those childhood ambitions that fuel us throughout our lives. While he makes a good case for the continued privatization of space travel, Woolf most succeeds in representing Garriott as a man who loves the stars as much as he adores his father.

Full Clip of Richard Garriott on The Colbert Report in 2008
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categories Reviews, Sci-Fi