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NASA reaches its outer limit

The agency, seeing films and TV with space themes as a way to keep public interest in its programs, readily consults on Hollywood projects. But it has pulled back from 'Apollo 18.'

September 01, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Promotional material for Apollo 18 suggests that it has found classified footage of a secret space mission.
Promotional material for Apollo 18 suggests that it has found classified… (Deminsion Films )

A cracked cosmonaut helmet, footsteps in the moon dust, a mysterious flash of light outside a spaceship window — these are some of the images the Weinstein Co. has released from "Apollo 18," a documentary-style sci-fi thriller opening Friday that the studio is marketing as a movie culled from "found footage" from a U.S. space mission.

"In 1972, the United States sent two astronauts on a secret mission to the moon," the trailer says. "Despite decades of denial by NASA and the Department of Defense, classified footage of the mission was leaked to the media."

To recap: Evidence of a vast, 40-year government conspiracy is allegedly about to be exposed by the movie studio that brought you "Piranha 3D" and "Scream 4."

A number of this summer's openly fictional films — Michael Bay's alien robot sequel "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," Terrence Malick's celestial drama "The Tree of Life," the speculative sci-fi indie "Another Earth" — have wrestled with galactic themes and relied on NASA scientists, materials and imagery. Last year, in fact, the U.S. space agency collaborated on nearly 100 documentaries, 35 TV shows and 16 feature films.

But after initially touting "Apollo 18" as one of its upcoming fiction film collaborations, NASA — which, for the record, says the last manned mission to the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972 — has begun to back away from the movie.

"Apollo 18 is not a documentary," said Bert Ulrich, NASA's liaison for multimedia, film and television collaborations. "The film is a work of fiction, and we always knew that. We were minimally involved with this picture. We never even saw a rough cut. The idea of portraying the Apollo 18 mission as authentic is simply a marketing ploy. Perhaps a bit of a 'Blair Witch Project' strategy to generate hype."

With the U.S. space agency at a crossroads — it retired its space shuttle program in July, it's relying on Russian rockets to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station, and it's struggling to find funding and political support for its next mission of sending astronauts to an asteroid in about 15 years — NASA realizes that keeping the public interested in the extraterrestrial is critical to its future.

There was a time when NASA's actual missions — not the "Blair Witch" versions of them — were enough. But without another high-profile NASA project on the runway, working with Hollywood is key.

"It's a wonderful way to reach the public through these huge media means like feature films and television shows, and it can inspire people in an interesting way, and it also can instruct people about what space exploration is all about," Ulrich said.

Sometimes, as with "Apollo 18," attempts at collaboration break down. Another film that the agency refused to work on was the 2000 Warner Bros. bomb "The Red Planet," about making Mars safe for human colonization.

"The science was just so off the wall that eventually we felt, 'You guys go ahead and make your movie.' If there's something that's going to be so misleading to the public that we don't want to participate, then we'll say no," said Ulrich. "The big thing is, we want to make sure we're not misleading the public completely. So if all of a sudden there's a change in what was shot or a change in the storyboard, they're supposed to inform us."

But the boundaries are often expansive. Consider "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," which Paramount Pictures rereleased in Imax theaters on Aug. 26. It proposes an alternative reason for the 1960s space race — that it was triggered by the discovery of an alien spaceship that had crashed on the moon.

Last October, NASA allowed director Michael Bay to film key scenes on one of its shuttle launch pads at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin appears in a cameo scene in the film opposite lead robot Optimus Prime.

"With the shutting down of the shuttle program, [NASA] were very interested in the timing of our movie and showing some of the positive aspects of the space program as they're winding down," said "Transformers" producer Ian Bryce. "Our movie shooting there didn't have anything to do with the shutdown, but they viewed it as being helpful and as maintaining their visibility at this time."

NASA has made some more formal gestures of outreach to Hollywood. In December, the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge hosted a workshop for filmmakers called NASA 101, in which astronauts and scientists addressed producers and screenwriters on subjects such as robotics, astrobiology and Mars.

"We don't know if people are going to go out and write scripts on this stuff, but we felt it was important to tell people this is where we are with space exploration," Ulrich said. In one session about the look, smell and feel of space, astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson described her view from the panoramic shuttle window as akin to sitting "in a bowl full of stars."

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