There’s a good reason why Star Wars is more popular than movies about real space travel. Most of the real stuff is incredibly boring. I’m sorry, I’m as big a space buff as anyone on the planet, but I can’t watched four hours of an ISS astronaut in a spacesuit tightening bolts on a thingamabob, nor even astronauts floating around inside. Ground control is even more boring. Most of this it would have been impossible to make interesting, but I’ve always felt NASA is partly to blame. They could have done better. I mean, what did they do, conduct auditions for CapCom to find the man with the most droning, flat, emotionless voice possible? When Challenger blew up the guy reported it like it was a normal event. Any other human would have shouted out “Oh, no!” or “Holy shit!” I would have forgiven him. But the empty, emotionless voice is now traditional.
Ron Howard, in Apollo 13, managed to make that real-life crisis exciting, even though not much was really happening. The director here, John Sturges, was a talented action director, and maybe not the right man for this movie, which strove to be as true-to-life as possible. And they succeeded, replicating launch control at the Cape, and Mission Control in Houston. The story concerns three astronauts (Gene Hackman, James Franciscus, and Richard Crenna) (“Buzz,” “Stoney” and … Jim, a man sorely in need of a nickname) stranded in orbit when their retro rocket fails to fire. They are quickly running out of oxygen, with about 43 hours left. On the ground, gung-ho Richard Janssen and by-the-book Gregory Peck clash on whether or not it is feasible to mount a rescue mission in that time. Naturally Janssen wins. No way we’re going to watch a movie where all three slowly die while no one on the ground does anything.
I have to give them credit for the accuracy of the thing, which is almost obsessive. It looks like ever dial and gauge and screw in the interior of an Apollo capsule was faithfully re-created. Ditto for the countdowns, where we run through what feels like entire launch manuals several times. It manages to build a fair amount of tension, and some pathos. Naturally we have to have one of the astronauts freaking out, and Gene Hackman gets that sorry job. Poor Buzz, it might have been better if he died up there, because everyone in Houston and Florida saw him losing his shit, endangering everyone else’s lives. If he ever had an ounce of the Right Stuff, he must have left it somewhere else. The SFX are pretty good, for the time, though they can’t compare with 2001, the previous year. Good enough for an Oscar, though.