STORY LINK: "Magnificent Desolation" on Space.com
Walking on the Moon
review by Michelle Evans, October 2005
A stark plain, no life to be seen. A black, airless sky with the stars washed out because the landscape is so bright in the sunlight. This is the Moon, a world that has stayed essentially the same for more than four billion years. There are no plants, no scurrying animals, no life at all.
This all changed for one flickering moment in history. For a little over three years, from July 1969 to December 1972, life took a temporary foothold, as 12 astronauts from the planet Earth descended into the lunar wilderness, stepped from their frail craft, looked around, studied their surroundings, took a few hundred pounds of samples, then blasted back into space, the loneliness of the bleak landscape once again no longer being disturbed.
Those of us alive at the time these first missions to another world occurred were awed by the majesty of it all. We were swept up in the grand adventure. Many of us wanted to follow in the footsteps of Neil, Buzz, Pete, Gene, and the rest. We knew this was just the beginning and we have waited for the door to open once again.
The dream has burned to embers for many of us. We felt that there was little possibility of ever being in space or on the Moon and seeing what these men saw. For those not alive at the time, it was all just a few pages in their history books. Some cool photos, but of little meaning for them personally.
Now, with the Moon and Mars again set as the goal, our space program may finally deliver on the dream we lost over 30 years ago. To jump start that dream again, on September 23, the latest IMAX movie opens nationwide.
“Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D” will take you where those 12 walked before in an unbelievable way. You may not actually step foot on the Moon, but I guarantee that after you leave the IMAX theater, you will feel like you have been there in person. Executive Producer Tom Hanks shows what someone of his influence, skills, and with an interest in space exploration, can create in Hollywood.
This is by far the most realistic portrayal of the Apollo program we could imagine, not just a dry documentary as we have seen countless times, but a complete reimagining of the idea of landing on another world. And they did it all in three dimensions!
Previously, we were able to travel realistically into space when “Space Station” was released in 3D in 2002. However, they at least had access to space to do that film. Special IMAX 3D cameras went into orbit and captured real footage. With Apollo, IMAX had not yet been born when Americans stepped onto the Moon. Since we are now still a decade away from returning there in person, the lunar landscape had to be recreated on a soundstage here on Earth, but they did so in such realistic detail you will feel you are right beside the astronauts. With your gloved hands, it will seem as if you can actually touch the Moon.
One of the truly amazing sequences is when we follow the Apollo 15 Lunar Module, Falcon, down to the surface. This landing was the most treacherous ever attempted. Commander Dave Scott (who also served as a Technical Advisor for “Magnificent Desolation”), and Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin, guided their spindly, foil-covered LM over the peaks of the Moon’s Apennine Mountains down to a plain near the 1,500-foot-deep gorge, Hadley Rille. We are there beside them all the way down. It’s as if you are riding in your own LM, formation flying with Dave and Jim.
When we are near Falcon we feel safe and secure with our fellow travelers, but there are moments when we pull away and the LM and the two men from Earth are just a bright dot in the far distance, with the stark reality of their precarious position fully entering our minds. There is no space traffic controller helping these guys out, no one on the ground to give them sightings and let them know they are A-OK with a welcome pot of coffee in Flight Ops when they are through, no mechanics to give a hand if something should go wrong. They are on their own as no humans except their fellow Apollo crews were, a tiny, insignificant dot in the vast universe, a quarter million miles away from home.
Throughout this sequence, I actually had trouble seeing what was happening because of the mist building up in my eyes. To be in that place and understand what humans were attempting to do, was an emotional experience that no movie has ever before been able to pass along to its audience.
Once we are down on the surface, we get out and explore right along with the astronauts. We do not just follow Apollo 15, but in the bootprints of all those who explored the Moon. The first words from each astronaut as they touched the lunar dust are broadcast. This isn’t just Neil’s “small step” or “giant leap,” we are there with Pete Conrad as he exclaims “Whoopie!” all the way through Gene Cernan waxing eloquent on his arrival with Harrison Schmitt at Taurus-Littrow.
As we explore our surroundings, we come to understand the environment on which we walk with our fellow astronauts. With no air to mitigate the distance, objects tens of miles away are just as brilliant, sharp, and clear as if we were just feet away. This is brought home when Dave and Jim approach the lip of Hadley Rille. From their perspective (and ours), it seems as if they are on a slightly undulating plain. Then we pull up into a view unseen by the Moonwalkers to notice they are literally on the edge of a precipice. The smooth edges belie the fact that a steep gorge awaits just feet away. Even then, it doesn’t look too bad. Maybe it’s just a gully, a fall wouldn’t be so far.
The IMAX camera zooms back until the humans are just specks, again showing the isolation unknown when you watch the hazy television coverage of the time. Even then, we still don’t truly understand the scale of what we are seeing. Finally we come to rest on the edge of a turn in the canyon. The floor could be just 50 or 100 feet below. Through the magic of the movie, the Statue of Liberty appears at the bottom, with over double its height yet above it to reach the rim. We finally start to appreciate what it must be like in this hostile, yet beautiful environment with our Earthly senses no longer reliable.
When Neil Armstrong first looked around after stepping off the Lunar Module footpad, he remarked that his surroundings were “Magnificent.” Buzz Aldrin took a moment for reflection, then used Neil’s description to formulate his own as he stated, “Yes, magnificent desolation.”
These words are still a perfect description of what the Moon is like today and has been for billions of years. But what of the future? In a delightful sequence, children are asked if they want to go into space and what their feelings are about the Moon. All but one answer that they would like to go there in person. We end up following one young girl’s vision of her future in space, a vision I think most of us would like to share.
When the lights came up at the end of this 40-minute excursion to another world, I saw many people wiping their eyes and heard a catch in their voice. The emotional impact of this movie cannot be understated. Watching “Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D,” we see what it is that we as a nation accomplished so long ago, what we lost by giving up those abilities, and what we will gain when we return.