Back in the days of Apollo -- the space missions, not the Greek and Roman god -- teachers used to bring in TVs to allow schoolchildren to watch the splashdown of space capsules carrying men returning from the moon. Like weekday World Series games, the experience is now alien to a generation of kids more familiar with science fiction than science fact.
Tom Hanks was 13 on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. With "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D," the Oscar-winning actor's latest foray into space following "Apollo 13" and "From the Earth to the Moon," it would seem he's intent not only on providing the type of wonder he and his generation experienced, but also to let us in on what Armstrong and 11 others encountered on the lunar surface.
An unapologetic cheerleader for exploring the final frontier, Hanks wrote and produced (along with director Mark Cowen) this enthralling look at what might be the greatest technological feat of the 20th century. The filmmakers present a whirlwind of facts in a breezy, easily digestible manner that has some fun with the 3-D effects in what is actually more an educational joy ride than a documentary. Narrator Hanks deftly moves from humor to gravitas as required, acting as the film's tour guide through a series of amusing vignettes that compress the history of humankind's fascination with space travel and the moon in particular.
The moon footage was expertly re-created on the Sony lot in Culver City, and it should be pointed it out that there is one sequence that depicts a clearly labeled hypothetical incident in which two astronauts are stranded when their lunar rover is disabled and must high-tail it back to the module.
But it's the film's visuals that provide its biggest thrills as director Cowen places the audience squarely in the boots of Apollo astronauts as they walk the moon's pockmarked surface. The Imax 3-D format mimics the near weightlessness as the space travelers glide from point to point marveling at the vastness of the Sea of Tranquillity.
In its simultaneous bleakness and beauty, the view really does live up to the two words -- magnificent desolation -- spoken by Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, from which the film takes its title. In a touch of Ken Burns-esque earnestness, a coterie of actors such as Paul Newman, Scott Glenn, Matthew McConaughey and the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman lend their voices to quotes by the Apollo astronauts.
Armstrong, Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt. There was a time when nerdy school kids like myself could rattle off these 12 names as easily as the starting lineup for our favorite baseball team. Hanks still possesses that awestruck enthusiasm of a teenager and there's something admirable about him wanting to pass that on.
'Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D'
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times guidelines: Appropriate for all ages.
A Playtone/Imax production, sponsored by Lockheed Martin. Director Mark Cowen. Producers Tom Hanks, Mark Cowen, Gary Goetzman. Screenplay by Tom Hanks, Mark Cowen, Christopher G. Cowen. Director of Photography Sean MacLeod Phillips. Editor William Schinski. Production Designer Charles Lee. Music James Newton Howard. Running time: 40 minutes.
At Imax theaters.