There seems to be a small industry involved in recycling NASA footage of the Apollo lunar landings on cheap DVDs. You’ve probably seen them in the documentary section of your local DVD shop. They all look very similar, and they seem to all use the same footage. But there are a handful of documentaries available on DVD which use original, or previously unseen, NASA footage, and attempt more than a dry retelling of the Apollo programme. Magnificent Desolation, an IMAX film, directed by Mark Cowen and released in 2005, is one such documentary. It is presented, and was co-written, by Tom Hanks, an ardent space enthusiast.
Magnificent Desolation begins with some potted science and history, and because of this feels somewhat like a television science programme from the Open University or its US equivalent. However, the film then re-enacts the Apollo 15 using computer-generated imagery and special effects. Apollo 15 landed on the plain at the foot of the lunar Apennine Mountains on the Sea of Rains, between the 15,000 feet-high Mons Hadley and 1,000 feet-deep Hadley Rille. It’s certainly more spectacular scenery than that of the other Apollo landing sites – relatively speaking, of course – which may be why the film-makers chose it.
The CGI gives a much better indication of the scale of landscape features than the photographs or footage taken by the astronauts. Perspective was apparently hard to judge on the Moon – indeed, in Apollo 15’s photos, Mons Hadley, half the size of Mount Everest, resembles a low hill. Magnificent Desolation illustrates the point by superimposing the 300 feet-high Statue of Liberty inside Hadley Rille.
Magnificent Desolation also makes a point of showing how dangerous the Apollo missions were. Considering the sheer technical difficulty of the programme – launch three men and assorted equipment into orbit, carry them 250,000 miles to the Moon, land two of them, bring them back up from the lunar surface, return to Earth and re-enter the atmosphere at speeds approaching Mach 30 – it’s astonishing that Apollo 13 was the only disaster. And even then, Lovell, Swigert and Haise made it back home in one piece. There was so much that could have gone wrong… with no way to effect a timely rescue. Magnificent Desolation imagines one such scenario – the two astronauts crash the LRV in a crater, damaging the PLSS of one, and the two must walk back several kilometres to the LM on shared air. Strangely, while the two actors are clearly re-enacting Apollo 15 (except for the LRV crash, of course), their characters are not named Dave Scott or Jim Irwin – one addresses the other as Hank.
Throughout Magnificent Desolation, the voices of the Apollo astronauts describe elements of the lunar landings. Except it isn’t the astronauts, but actors playing them. And there’s some well-known Hollywood talent reading out the astronauts’ words: Morgan Freeman, John Travolta, Scott Glenn, Matthew McConaughey, Paul Newman, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise…
Magnificent Desolation has not been released in the UK, but is readily available as a Region 1 DVD. While it may feel at times like an educational programme, it does get across how remarkable an achievement the Apollo lunar landings were. It also, of the documentaries I’ve seen, gives the best presentation of the lunar landscape, albeit using CGI. It belongs in the DVD collection of any self-respecting Apollo enthusiast.
Magnificent Desolation, directed by Mark Cowen (2005, HBO Home Video, Region 1 DVD, length 40 mins)