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Culture Warrior: ‘Apollo 18’ and the Future of NASA in the Movies

By  · Published on September 6th, 2011

From the second half of the twentieth century onward, our view of NASA and its associated lore in movies have been inseparable. The astronaut, a uniquely American frontier hero whose myth and iconography made them the cowboy of the second half of the 20th century, has a position in our cultural memory that is inseparable from cinematic imagination.

From pre-moon landing science fiction that dreamed of potential encounters with distant worlds through an organized space program (Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey) to reenactments of history celebrating the space program and the individuals involved (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) to NASA/moon landing documentaries (For All Mankind, In the Shadow of the Moon) to later, more divergent science-fiction films that have emerged since the prominence of NASA has lessened (Armageddon and so on), NASA, space exploration, the moon landing, and its imagined associations have retained a prominent place in cinematic mythmaking prompted by continued fascination with the frontier of space and humanity’s place in it. Hell, we’ve wondered about the moon since the beginning of cinema.

That our collective experience of space in both fiction (i.e., narrative cinema) and non-fiction has been via the moving image (i.e., watching the moon landing on TV) is perhaps what most thoroughly cements this porous association between NASA and its cinematic myth.

Go For Launch

NASA certainly hasn’t retained the prominence it had in the 1950s-early 1970s, but throughout the 80s and 90s (when I grew up), there seemed to be a continued veneration of and fascination with the program, whether it be the construction of the International Space Station, the implementation of various space telescopes and orbiting technology, or the iconic tragedy of the Challenger mission. While witnessing a trip to the moon was the definitive NASA experience of my parents’ youth, the lives of astronauts and the wonders of space were certainly in my purview growing up. Rumors of a Mars mission didn’t seem too far out there, stratified by the same-year release of two awful movies on the subject.

However, NASA’s recent decision to cease involvement with their space shuttle project was a certainly a blow for us who grew up with NASA infused in our imagination (even though I can barely articulate exactly what NASA has even been up to these days). As Neil DeGrasse-Tyson passionately argued recently, this will have great effect on the dreams of future generations. For us, NASA wasn’t so much an direct indicator for our life goals, but a symbol of the infinite possibilities of human achievement.

Movies about, inspired by, or associated with NASA receive a fascinated response in part because the magnetic force of fiction, myth, or representation’s ability to echo the reality, the concrete, in this unique case. We might not be able to find a story of blue-collar oil drillers-cum-astronauts destroying a meteor the size of Texas easy to believe, but the veracity of human beings going into the reaches of space was never in itself a great hurdle. This seems to have always been the case, as there were many, many movies about trips to space and the moon before we actually went there. These movies, – sometimes clumsily, sometimes not – put the science in science fiction. But with NASA’s decreased role in our socio-political and scientific reality, what then will happen to its corresponding cinematic mythmaking?

Houston, We Have a Problem

Perhaps one of the strangest developments in our NASA-related cinematic imaginary culminated this weekend with the delayed release of found footage horror film Apollo 18, a ultimately quite silly horror film that is otherwise significant because of its attempt to market itself as not only the latest entry in the found footage craze, but as a film about a NASA moon-related conspiracy theory. I say ‘culminated’ because it’s actually the second major release of the summer(-ish – Labor Day counts, right?) to have a moon landing conspiracy as a major narrative element after Transformers 3: Stimuli Orgy.

While two films hardly constitute a trend and Transformers’ NASA subplot is more an ongoing component of the series’ strangely irreverent relationship with history (Herbert Hoover: our most misunderstood president) than evidence of a tide in Hollywood’s representation of NASA, the organization’s specific response to each of these films is worth considering.

In the case of Transformers, Bay had the full support and blessing of NASA, while with Apollo 18, NASA put pressure on the film’s Blair Witch-style website LunarTruth.com and issued a laughably unnecessary statement that the film was not, in fact, a documentary. Yet both of these films deal with a massive government conspiracy related to the Apollo program, the first simply being more benevolent than the latter but both involving a grand duping of the American people.

But you can’t blame NASA for their timidity surrounding a film like Apollo 18. Their public relations are in an understandably vulnerable state, as NASA and its supporters have to make a case for their significance amidst budget cuts, economic uncertainty, the decline of America as a superpower, and the absence of an Apollo-era sense of ideological and international competition. More importantly, the organization is no stranger to conspiracy theorists. While neither Apollo 18 nor Transformers espouse any of the dominant conspiracy theories (they both posit that we actually went to the moon), they each form a narrative whose conspiracy is based on the selective dance between criticism of and unquestioned belief in the veracity of moving images that fervent Apollo conspiracy theory is largely built upon.

Transformers uses the brief absence of a television feed to propel, for the convenience of its narrative, the reality behind an accepted cultural memory. Meanwhile, Apollo 18, by a means closer to the basic assumptions behind Apollo conspiracy theories, uses the found footage format to posit, similarly to Transformers, that NASA’s self-representation selectively balances the information it does and does not want the public to know.

Apollo 18, which takes place in 1974 or sometime shortly after, goes as far as situating this paranoia of a government shadowing certain information by contextualizing it with the Nixon/Watergate scandal. While the Transformers series is as “patriotic” (in the superficial “flag pin” sense of the term – it’s as much an ad for certain national institutions as it is for Mountain Dew) as any Bay movie, this brief (and forced) Watergate moment in Apollo 18 alludes to the divided America that persisted on Earth’s soil during the Apollo program (especially in the year of the moon landing), a program whose unified national pride was more an exception than the national rule.

The critical and commercial reception of Apollo 18 suggests that it won’t be an influential film, even amongst the few entries of its found footage subgenre. But it is the first mainstream NASA-related film to be released since the final space shuttle mission launched on July 21 of this year, and it makes me curious as to what NASA’s cinematic future will be. Since there is now a less visible ongoing reality for our NASA-related narrative fictions to emerge from, what exactly will our fictions become? Will we continue to resort to stories of conspiracies (benevolent or not) simply because there is no new reality to mine, or will the cinematic imagination find entirely new terrain to explore? After all, 2001: A Space Odyssey already took us to the very end of our universe a full year before we actually made the comparatively short trip to our moon.

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