Originally created 01/23/04

Space needs no alien props



Let's face it, Hollywood has distorted the idea of outer space - just a bit.

Thanks to the action-oriented eye of the studio system, the popular conception of the universe outside Earth's atmosphere involves a lot of malicious aliens, burning lasers blazing across the void, and improbably beautiful heroes and heroines saving planet after planet from unspeakable evil.

The truth is somewhat less romantic: Our limited exploration of the void has found a whole lot of nothing going on. Sure, there's the occasional supernova, though never in our neighborhood.

Outside the benign meteor showers, Earthlings are privy to little that is super spacey cool.

Still, the mysteries and menace of space can make for compelling cinema, even without the lasers and light-speed. There have been several fine films that, while taking a realistic view of space, remain entertaining and, occasionally, educational.

Here are a few:

MAROONED (1969): Released just before the Apollo 13 mission became a real-life model for an astronaut emergency, this atmospheric disaster film invented a fictional space crisis. The all-star cast included Gregory Peck as a tireless ground-control supervisor and a young Gene Hackman as a panicky spaceman. Because the movie concentrated on the human drama rather than the now-outdated technology, it has aged particularly well.

SILENT RUNNING (1972): An oddball slice of science fiction, with Bruce Dern as a semi-psycho botanist who, after dispatching his crewmembers, hijacks a greenhouse ship containing Earth's last trees and heads for deep space. The sci-fi elements are played down in favor of character study, played out as Mr. Dern's character experiences the effects of being alone in the Big Empty.

THE RIGHT STUFF (1983): An epic adaptation of Tom Wolfe's nonfiction novel, this film takes a warts-and-all look at the pioneers of America's space program. The most compelling parts of the movie deal with test pilot Chuck Yeager, the man whose speed and altitude flights paved the way for the Mercury 7.

APOLLO 13 (1995): Before Jim Lovell and his crew found themselves adrift somewhere between Earth and moon with a laundry list of malfunctions, few people had considered what to do in the event of a true space catastrophe. What's interesting about this film adaptation of the true story is that although history tells us that the three astronauts made it home safely, filmmaker Ron Howard is able to maintain a sense of tension and suspense.

THE DISH (2000): This Earthbound space flick is an excellent reminder that exploration outside the atmosphere requires hundreds of personnel on the ground for every astronaut who rides a rocket. The Dish follows the crew of a remote Australian radio telescope charged with broadcasting the first televised images from the moon. Charming and bright, it's a great sketch of ordinary people responding to extraordinary events.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.