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Friday, Jan. 9, 2009
'In the Shadow of the Moon'/'Searchers 2.0'
Take a trip, to space or Utah
In the late 1970s, there was a cheesy sci-fi adventure show on T.V. called "Space: 1999." The best thing about this series was its title — the idea that some 20 years in the future we'd be colonizing space. It seemed almost plausible at the time, and for that we can thank NASA and their Apollo missions to the moon: In the space of a few years, man decided to leave the planet and travel through space — and actually did so.
It's all quite hard to believe, nowadays, when the only thing we have to look forward to 20 years from now is virtual sex and explosive-sniffing sensors on every street corner. Hence the title of director David Sington's new documentary on the Apollo missions, "In the Shadow of the Moon" — in some very real sense, all the progress and potential displayed in the decades since seems rather small by comparison. Dreams of colonizing other planets, of exploring the final frontier, have been replaced by dreams of cross-platform portability for the endless data stream our lives are becoming.
Based mostly on well-restored archival footage and recent interviews with many of the astronauts involved, Sington's film is a reverent look at the mission to put a man on the moon. (Neil Armstrong is notably absent.) As much as the achievement itself, it's clear that Sington is nostalgic for that can-do spirit which made it possible, an optimism and dedication to progress which America seems to have lost somewhere down the line. (Though President-elect Barak Obama might be up for restoring it.)
The film tracks the entire Apollo program, including its early, failed missions (Apollo 1 exploded on the launch pad), giving a good sense of how risky the entire venture was. One astronaut even recalls how his rocket rattled unnervingly all the way to the moon. The voyage there is recounted in loving detail with plenty of great anecdotes — Who knew that the first thing Buzz Aldrin did upon reaching the lunar surface was to take one small leak in his suit? — and is illustrated with astonishingly beautiful imagery from NASA's archives, much of it never seen before. Sington moves beyond the trip itself, though, to ask the spacemen what it all meant. What is it like to walk on another planet, to see the Earth from afar? How did that experience change them, and their worldview?
The sense of awe-struck wonder described by the astronauts permeates the entire film and makes "In the Shadow of the Moon" such a joy to watch. But if there's only one criticism of this film, it's a pretty big one: that it covers very similar ground to 1989's "For all Mankind," by Al Reinert, which also looked at the lunar missions entirely in the astronauts' own words. That documentary had a Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois score that perfectly evoked deepest space, though, so I'd say it wins on points.
D irector Alex Cox was one of those 1980s sensations who, like Jean-Jacques Beineix ("Diva") or Adrian Lyne ("Flashdance"), fared less well in the decades that followed. "Searchers 2.0," a zany road movie steeped in film-buff ephemera, is being billed as Cox's comeback, but then again, that's been said of every movie he's done since 1987's "Walker," and none of them have quite worked out that way.
Like all of Cox's films — including his best known, "Repo Man" and "Sid and Nancy" — "Searchers 2.0" boasts an irreverent wit and a strong countercultural tendency. But like most of his post-'80s work — "Revenger's Tragedy" (2002), "Death and the Compass" (1996) — there's also a noticeably slapdash, fuzzy-brained feel to the proceedings here. The fact that it was shot on digital video and looks it doesn't help, though I suppose the "produced by Roger Corman" credit is some kind of excuse in this department.
"Searchers 2.0" is a movie that feels like it was sketched out on a napkin sometime after the 10th beer. The film follows underemployed and incorrigible stoners. Fred and Mel (Ed Pansullo and Del Zamora, both Cox regulars) as they cook up a half-baked scheme to take revenge on a screenwriter who terrorized them when they were child actors. They hit the road with Mel's fiery daughter Delilah (Jaclyn Jonet) — it's her car — and head to Monument Valley, where the evil screenwriter will be introducing a screening of the film in which he traumatized them, "Inferno at Fort Carson."
The bare-bones plot serves as a Christmas tree upon which Cox hangs all his usual decorations: fanboy movie trivia, lefty political points, pokes at Hollywood, and ironic commentary on moviemaking itself (especially Westerns.) With a pair of eccentric and cantankerous 40-something boomer buddies as its leads, the film really wants to be "The Big Lebowski," but it just doesn't make the cut. Cox doesn't have the lines or the comic timing of the Coen Brothers. He does, however, have a fascinating idiosyncratic performance from Ed Pansullo though — ranging from laid-back mellow to childish petulance and rants about John Ford — which is reason enough to see this film.