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Movie review: 'Man on a Mission'

Gaming entrepreneur Richard Garriott buys a spot on Soyuz. Destination: the International Space Station. It's a fun if indulgent ride.

January 20, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • The documentary "Man on a Mission" focuses on video game guru Richard Garriott and his quest for space travel.
The documentary "Man on a Mission" focuses on video game guru… (First Run Features )

"Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars" is the ultimate vanity project (in the form of a documentary) for the video game guru who had $30 million burning a hole in his pocket and an equally outsized desire for a trip out of this world. It's a bit precious in its narcissistic point of view, but still a kick to watch the hopelessly devoted astronaut wannabe fulfill his wildest dream.

The film traces the training, the rocket ship ride and the time he spent at the International Space Station in 2008 in one of the most expansive, and no doubt expensive, home movies you're ever likely to see, Uncle Bill's Rome adventure not withstanding.

Not to put a fine point on it, but the 50-year-old Garriott's chief accomplishment is in the area of developing fantasy role-playing computer games, which makes this trip seem a little "Tron"-like, with him actually stepping into the picture. The fact that he sometimes dresses like a knight errant is just the icing on that cake.

Garriott comes by his obsession naturally, with father Owen a NASA astronaut-scientist who spent time on Skylab when Garriott was growing up — footage from that time is intercut along the way. Like countless kids of that era, he wanted to be an astronaut too, but bad eyesight derailed that plan before he had a chance to try.

The film details that back story, from the dream denied to the driven entrepreneur who found himself awash in funds just as the idea of private citizens taking shuttle rides was gaining traction. Things start to get more interesting as director Mike Woolf, who moves from documentary shorts to feature-length project with this film, walks us through what it really takes, besides $30 million, to take that flight. To begin with, the ticket was only available on the Russian craft Soyuz, and much of Garriott's training, including learning a new language, took place at the cosmonaut training center in what is called Star City.

Whether Garriott's personal physician is testing his internal organs for the rigors of space travel or Garriott is practicing escape maneuvers in the Black Sea in case the capsule lands in the ocean on the return trip, there is the wide-eyed excitement of a kid with a new toy about him that lends a certain charm to the film. The idea of making his dad proud, and the fact that the trip makes him part of a very exclusive club of second-generation space travelers, surfaces again and again.

As you might expect, the footage of the launch and the shots of earth from space, are exhilarating. And since this is not CNN and there's no need to cut away for commercial, the film takes its time with these.

The film goes off course a bit when Garriott starts explaining the various experiments he's taken with him into space — it starts feeling like an attempt to justify such an extravagant indulgence. He needn't worry. It's enough fun for the rest of us to just go along for the ride.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

'Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott's Road to the Stars'

MPAA rating: Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing: In selected theaters

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