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First Man and how sci-fi movies warped our idea of space travel

First Man’s spaceflight sequences remind us that 1969 was a far cry from the 31st century

star trek the next generation starship enterprise CBS via Getty Images

“For here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”
—David Bowie, “Space Oddity”

Damien Chazelle’s First Man didn’t achieve box-office escape velocity this past weekend, but in time, it will be recognized as a great film. Part of its virtue stems from being a psychological inquiry into Neil Armstrong (it’s about the man more than the mission) balanced with some mind-throttling sequences of interplanetary peril that express — better, perhaps, than any other movie before it — the claustrophobic danger of early space travel.

This isn’t to say that visiting the stars looks easy in most movies, but our conception of it has significantly drifted from the truth, in large part thanks to science fiction.

Take the franchise with the longest dilithium footprint: Star Trek. The USS Enterprise of the Original Series (1966-69) would occasionally have a submarine-like quality in some episodes (and would again in Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), but by the time we got to The Next Generation, the ship’s beige interior, conference rooms and potted plants made it look like an office building in space. With a proto-Alexa that could tell you where all your friends were (in the Holodeck — pretending to be Sherlock Holmes!) and a machine that could make pre-steeped Earl Grey tea appear out of thin air, one hardly felt the presence of rivets or thunking metal separating Counselor Troi and her chocolate sundaes from instant asphyxiation.

Yes, our heroes occasionally encounter the dangers of space’s vacuum (like Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres in Voyager’s season 4 episode “Day of Honor,” or the Narada’s attack on the USS Kelvin in the opening of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot). But only in rare moments are we reminded that everyone is merely inches removed from the inky void of immediate death!

flight to the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey
Warner Bros. Pictures

Even on a damaged shuttlecraft, the size of a mini school bus, there’s always an M-Class planet in the system upon which to crash-land. Science fiction literature has the trope of the Big Dumb Object. Enormous spacecraft like the Enterprise or the Discovery (2001: A Space Odyssey) or the Nostromo (Alien) or Star Wars’ Imperial Star Destroyers or Battlestar Galactica’s titular vessel place our characters on the Big Safe Object. (So long as no one is shooting at them or spewing skin-melting acid, that is.)

As professor Lawrence Krauss writes in his 1995 book The Physics of Star Trek, every time Captain Picard says “engage,” the G-forces of even subliminal velocity would turn him into “chunky salsa” against his padded center chair. The Star Trek writers occasionally slip in a reference to “inertial dampeners” that prevent such a gruesome fate, but in actuality, special suits are needed to keep blood circulating from a pilot’s legs to prevent the person from blacking out during sudden accelerations.

We catch a glimpse of this a bit during First Man’s initial action sequence. When Armstrong is still a test pilot, he takes his rocket-powered X-15 plane as high as it can go, then finds himself skipping across the atmosphere like a stone. This extreme altitude is shot with spooky lighting and eerie silence. And we haven’t even gotten to space yet.

We all remember the big finish of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, which recreates a WWII dogfight in the trenches of a small moon. (Oh, wait, that’s no moon; it’s a space station.) The Rebellion’s X-wings (and Battlestar Galactica’s Vipers) are agile, sleek and adaptable. Zooming around making quips back to your R2 unit works well for a generation of moviegoers raised on video games. The real deal was and sadly remains little different. With First Man, Chazelle makes sure you get a tactile sense of how our early space program fired men like Armstrong into orbit strapped to a tuna fish can.

First Man moon landing sequence DreamWorks Pictures/Universal Pictures

The docking of Gemini 8 (the big sequence midway through First Man) encounters an issue with “drag” or suborbital drag, or maybe drift. If I understood what was going on, I’d have done better in AP Physics. But in IMAX, and with a good sound system, what’s important is that everything starts spinning around like crazy. Instead of getting traditional, clarifying wide shots, we’re all up in Armstrong’s face, the camera shaking everywhere. Ryan Gosling is practically an abstract expressionist painting as he coolly ascertains the problem and figures out solutions.

The style does two things: It reminds you that Armstrong is a badass (most of us would be hurling up our Tang), and gives you a shot of existential dread. At least when tossed around at sea, there’s the potential you could maybe survive a little while with a life preserver. The Gemini scenes really sell just how insane it is to go to space and hope to survive the simplest of problems.

It’s a thrilling bit of cinema, and this is why a recent essay in Variety has me depressed. Critic Owen Gleiberman (who liked First Man) says mainstream audiences can’t relate to a moon landing movie because its stakes are too low in a post-Star Wars marketplace.

“In 1969 [the moon] had a quality of awe, but now it had the aura of an ancient dusty prequel to the kinetic space opera we were all carrying around in our heads,” Gleiberman writes. This is ultimately unfair to Chazelle and to audiences, who, I think, will grow to respect this movie.

In terms of thrills, little this year can match First Man’s final reel. We’re tight on Ryan Gosling’s face as the Eagle makes its final approach. There’s beeping and squawking (what the hell is a “1202 error”?) and rumbling. Buzz Aldrin sees the enormous, looming craters of the moon, yet calmly feeds Armstrong the information he needs. We hear Justin Hurwitz’s heart-pounding score of rapidly rotating scales, first one melodic line then another crossing over, nearly dragging it away from its natural conclusion. Then the screen blasts out to fill the full IMAX frame and Armstrong redeems his emotional arc with a nice symbolic gesture.

Gleiberman is right that it takes some extra work to convince modern audiences that going to the moon was a daring adventure. And maybe First Man’s marketing department zigged where it should have zagged. But from an artistic standpoint, and for giving us a jolt concerning how we think of space travel, it’s mission accomplished.

Jordan Hoffman is a writer and member of the New York Film Critics Circle. His work can be read in The Guardian, New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, Thrillist and elsewhere.