As a college sophomore, I knew exactly what the Apollo astronauts would find when they arrived on the moon: a desolate rockscape, craters shining white in reflected earthglow — and a big, black monolith.
Stanley Kubrick showed us all of that in the top-grossing movie of 1968 — 2001: A Space Odyssey — a full 15 months before Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. And even Kubrick was late to the party: Moviegoers had been heading moonward from pretty much the moment there were filmmakers to lead the way.
In 1902, Georges Méliès led an expedition in the 13-minute Trip to the Moon, one of the first films with an actual plot. It was not long on science: French astronauts climbed into a bullet-shaped capsule, were loaded into a cannon by a line of bathing beauties and got shot into space, landing smack in the eye of the Man-in-the-Moon.
But it didn’t take long for moviemakers to start getting things more right. As early as 1929, Fritz Lang, after consulting with scientists, was depicting not a moon cannon, but what would actually be needed — a multistage rocket — in his film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon). German scientists were so pleased that in World War II, they painted the film’s logo on their first V-2 rocket.
And then H.G. Wells got into the act with his script for Things to Come (1936), in which a young woman ventures into space. The real world wouldn’t catch up with that notion for decades.
In 1950’s Destination Moon, a group of wealthy businessmen insist that only the private sector could accomplish a visit to the moon. “The vast amount of brains, talents, special skills and research facilities necessary for this project are not in the government,” one character insists. “Only American industry can do this job!”
This was the McCarthy era and capitalism was the answer to a Red Scare question that no one needed to ask. Again, from the dialogue: “The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth! That, gentleman, is the most important military fact of this century!”
Quite a few of the film’s other “facts” were equally fanciful (see the trailer below), but Destination Moon had its feet planted a lot more firmly on the ground than most of that era’s science-fiction epics did.
With the Soviets launching Sputnik in the 1950s, audiences were certainly thinking about what might be up there. And Hollywood was giving them everything from Bugs Bunny (in 1948’s Haredevil Hare) to an immortal classic about, well, Cat-Women of the Moon (1953).
This sort of silliness is what prompted Stanley Kubrick to say a decade later that he wanted to make “the first science-fiction film that isn’t considered trash.” He went to great lengths in 2001: A Space Odyssey to explain the physics of space travel. And because his film was so popular, the public knew what to expect when NASA finally got to the moon’s surface.
When the documentary Moonwalk One, using footage from the Apollo 11 mission, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, it was pretty clear that Hollywood had been outflanked. It was hard to top the real thing, especially when the whole world had seen it on TV.
Before we landed on the moon, movies had speculated about what we would find. Now that we knew what we would find, however, movies started making jokes. In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Sean Connery’s 007 stumbled on a facility in the desert that was faking a moonwalk. (James Bond had no trouble evading actor-astronauts who were bouncing in slow motion around a studio moonscape.)
Kid flicks like Stowaway to the Moon (1975) and Space Camp (1986) traded on children’s enthusiasm for NASA. And a couple of animated cheese fans, Wallace and Gromit, decided in A Grand Day Out (1989) that they wanted a “taste” of the landscape.
But these were all goofs. It wasn’t until more than 20 years had gone by — a full generation — that filmmakers began to deal realistically with moon missions again, never more effectively than in an award-winning thriller about the real-life mission that had given the world a new catchphrase: “Houston, we have a problem.”
The film Apollo 13 came out in 1995 and was hugely popular. But by that time, the last moonwalk was decades old. And there was no new material for other true-life films to play with. Besides — realism about the moon? With fictional stories taking audiences to galaxies far, far away?
No, what Hollywood served up was fantasy — Dr. Evil’s moon base in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and the villain Gru’s plan to shrink the moon in Despicable Me (2010).
The notion of “the-moon-as-bad-guy-playground” became a thing in movies as varied as Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), the horror flick Apollo 18 released the same year (there were only 17 Apollo missions), and an evil-corporation thriller simply titled Moon (2009). And someone thought it was worth spending $100 million to make 2002’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash. (For that money, they could almost have sent star Eddie Murphy into space for real — might’ve been smarter, since no one saw the movie.)
By then, though, a pattern had developed. Just as it had taken a full generation before Hollywood re-created a real lunar mission in Apollo 13, it took another generation before the film industry came around again.
This time it was 2018’s First Man, which traced Neil Armstrong’s path to that giant leap — particularly in the Gemini missions that preceded Apollo. In so doing, it found plenty of drama, both in Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, pinwheeling through space in a capsule, and in Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, confronting NASA officials who withheld information from her: “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood!” she says. “You don’t have anything under control!”
That moment summed up — better than the film’s thundering Saturn rockets, and its state-of-the-art effects — what all these movies have been about: humankind looking up at the moon with childlike wonder, and dreaming of traveling there.
Now we could — such travel was filled with possibility, and risk, and in Hollywood’s telling, vivid cinematic thrills. But the real drama of going to the moon was — and remains — the human drama.
Nina Gregory edited the broadcast version of this story.