In 1964, Stanley Kubrick, on the recommendation of the science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, bought a telescope.
“He got this Questar and he attached one of his cameras to it,” said Katharina Kubrick, the filmmaker’s stepdaughter. “On a night where there was a lunar eclipse, he dragged us all out onto the balcony and we were able to see the moon like a big rubber ball. I don’t think I’ve seen it as clearly since. He loved that thing. He looked at it all the time.”
Space exploration was then an exciting possibility, but one far from realization. That July, NASA’s Ranger 7 sent back high-resolution photographs from the moon’s surface. Kubrick and Clarke, convinced the moon was only the start, began to toil on a script together.
It would be five years before astronauts landed on the moon, on July 20, 1969.
Kubrick took flight sooner. “2001: A Space Odyssey” opened in theaters on April 3, 1968.
The space race was always going to be won by filmmakers and science-fiction writers. Jules Verne penned “From the Earth to the Moon” in 1865, prophesying three U.S. astronauts rocketing from Florida to the moon. George Melies’ 1902 silent classic “A Trip to the Moon” had a rocket ship landing in the eye of the man in the moon. “Destination Moon,” based on Robert Heinlein’s tale, got there in 1950 and won an Oscar for special effects. Three years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, “Star Trek” began airing.
It is no wonder that the moon landing seemed like the stuff of movies. Some conspiracy theorists claimed it was one: another Kubrick production. But the truth of the landing was intertwined with cinema.
Audio recordings from Mission Control during Apollo 11 capture flight controllers talking about “2001.” The day of the landing, Heinlein and Clarke were on air with Walter Cronkite. Heinlein called it “New Year’s Day of the Year One.”
The landing was a giant leap not just for mankind but for filmmaking. The astronauts aboard Apollo 11 carried multiple film cameras with them, including two 16-mm cameras and several 70-mm Hasselblad 500s. Some cameras were affixed to the lunar module and the astronauts’ suits; others they carried on the journey. Their training was rudimentary, but they were filmmakers. Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins were all later made honorary members of the American Society of Cinematographers.
Those images, broadcast live on television, were crucial proof for the mission. Filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller, whose archival-based “Apollo 11” has been one of the year’s most acclaimed and popular documentaries, believes they constitute some of the most important images in cinema history.
“How could you argue with Buzz Aldrin’s landing shot with a 16-mm camera using variable frame rate and shutter exposures out the lunar module window?” said Douglas. “I mean, come up with a better shot in cinema history than the landing on the moon. And likewise, Michael Collins in the command module seeing the lunar module come off the surface of the moon. They’re incredible shots on their own, and they’re also technically astute.”
The possibility of traveling to the moon had long invigorated the dreams of storytellers. But the realization of that vision, and the images it produced, opened up entirely new horizons. The moon landing inspired films that greatly expanded the realm of science fiction and began an ongoing dance between the space program and the movies: two sunny industries driven by technological discovery and starry-eyed daydreams.
Many of the foremost filmmakers then coming of age turned to space. George Lucas debuted “Star Wars” in 1977, the same year Steven Spielberg released “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” suggesting a less harmonious universe, came out two years later.
Science fiction runs on its own parallel time line. It resides beyond contemporary reality while at the same time being informed by it. It is built on future dreams passed. Lucas was inspired by the 1936 serial “Flash Gordon.” Spielberg, who later made Kubrick’s “A.I.,” referred to “2001,” not the moon landing, as the genre’s “big bang.”
But, unmistakably, a new frontier opened when Apollo 11 landed. Philip Kaufman purposefully began his 1983 Oscar-winning epic “The Right Stuff,” based on Tom Wolfe’s book about the daring test pilots of the space program’s early days, with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepherd) on horseback.
” ‘The Right Stuff’ is right from the beginning a continuation of the Western,” Kaufman said. “The hero of ‘The Right Stuff’ is a spirit. … It’s something that’s ineffable. It’s the ultimate modesty, in a way. It’s in the great laconic characters of the Western. You don’t brag. You do your task in the best way possible. And maybe, as in ‘The Searchers’ or ‘Shane,’ you walk away at the end.”
The extraordinary height of achievement of the moon landing has ever since been a measuring stick for America. The partisan reception to last year’s “First Man,” with Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, was its own reflection of the country’s present. Kaufman, 82, imagines an ongoing search for “the right stuff.”