The greatest movies about the moon

James Oliver

As we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, why not relive the thrill of it through these eight great movies about the moon...

The further we get from the moon landings, the more amazing they appear: that the astronauts managed to traverse that vast distance with technology that's all but Neanderthal to modern eyes. But still they did it, and even the most cynical amongst us must marvel at the accomplishment.

The moon missions weren't just an engineering miracle; it was the culmination of a yearning that began when caves were considered the latest things in desirable residences. It's been the inspiration for artworks since around that time too, in paintings, poetry and, yes, in moving pictures also.

That's what this list is about. The 50th anniversary of the first man on the moon has, understandably enough, concentrated on the practical rather than the mythic. We thought we'd do our bit to redress the balance just a little, looking how filmmakers dreamt about the moon both before and after Neil Armstrong plonked his size 12s on the Sea of Tranquillity.

So, if you're ready, 10... 9.... 8.... 7....

 

A TRIP TO THE MOON

Made in 1903, this is still the most famous film about space travel, if only for that famous—nay, iconic—image of the man on the moon with a rocket in his eye. This was the work of Georges Melies, the first wizard of cinema, a one-time stage magician who was the first to realise how cinema might be used to show what had only previously been imagined, such as what it might be like to walk on the moon.

It's true that this is not the most scientifically rigorous of adventures: the rocket that holds our heroes is fired from a gigantic cannon. Perhaps less explicably, that cannon is loaded by a line of dancing girls. Even when no-one was watching their launches, NASA never thought of copying that.

 

FRAU IM MOND

Having imagined the city of the future in Metropolis, Fritz Lang decided to go one better in Frau im Mond (“Woman on the Moon”) and venture into space. What's more, he was determined to have a level of scientific accuracy that would make Georges Melies' Tiller Girls look to their dancing shoes.

Rocket technology was born in 1920s German, where Lang was working, and he recruited a couple of pioneers, Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley, to help him out, and the results stand up to this day. There's even a countdown to launch, something Lang claimed that subsequent rocket launches stole from him. Less accurate is the idea that people can wander around the moon looking for gold with only a hand-knitted sweater for protection but—hey—you can't have everything.

 

DESTINATION MOON

We have to have at least one 1950s sci-fi flick on this list and Destination Moon is one of the better—or at least, less cheesy—ones.

Shot in glorious Technicolor and boasting Oscar-winning special effects, it's surprisingly mature for a film of this type, dialling back the wide-eyed American optimism for a slightly more realistic look at the potential pitfalls of leaving our stratosphere. This aspect is likely due to one of the screenwriters, seminal Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein, who took the genre more seriously than most Hollywood hacks. Or it might be the work of another screenwriter, Rip Van Ronkel: he wasn't a seminal author of Science Fiction but did have a funnier name.

 

FIRST MEN IN THE MOON

So, they went up to the moon and, contrary to what a lot of people had hoped over the years, they didn't find any life. Not so much as a single Clanger.

Luckily, we have First Men in the Moon to assuage any disappointment. It's taken from a novel by HG Wells, which imagined a trio of Edwardians (two gentlemen and a lady) journeying to you-know-where by means of a mysterious element called “Cavorite”. There they meet the moon men (or “Selenites”, if we're using the proper taxonomy) and it's here that the movie scores over the novel, for those Selenites are animated by none other than Ray Harryhausen, a man who picked George Melies' magic wand and wielded it to create even more astonishing things than the master.

 

FOR ALL MANKIND

After the real moon landings, fictional depictions lost something of their mythic edge. Some good movies have been made since then (Moon, with Sam Rockwell, is very good indeed), but there's an emphasis on realism, not magic.

Happily, though, there's more than enough wonder to go round, as For All Mankind shows. It takes its title from the mission statement of Apollo 11. It's a documentary, but an unconventional one, for it is made up of footage shot by NASA across the 1960s, as they worked to go—well, to infinity and beyond. It is a film that defies hyperbole (majestic? Yup. Awe inspiring? Oh yeah.) as they go higher and higher, then further and further. A film that can only be watched slack-jawed in amazement.

 

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON

A more orthodox moon doc, this, with talking heads and everything. But as long as those talking heads include the likes of Alan Bean, John Young and Charlie Duke, there can be no complaints—Holy hell! They walked on the blimmin' MOON! You wanna hear what they have to say!

Star of the show is Michael Collins. He didn't actually land: he left that to his buddies Neil and Buzz and took charge of the command module that picked them up and took them home. As everyone on Earth watched them, he must have been the loneliest man in the universe (no exaggeration!), but he didn't let it get to him and is an engaging, eloquent and thoughtful interviewee. He, happily, is still with us but many featured here have died since it was made. Let's treasure the survivors while we can.

 

APOLLO 11

This is one of the centrepieces of the half-century anniversary of the moon landing, an as-it-went-down documentary drawn, like For All Mankind, from NASA shot footage.

There's a bit of overlap between the two—although it's not like it's ever going to be a chore to see a real rocket launch up close – but the Apollo 11 filmmakers had the good fortune to find some hitherto unseen footage shot around the launch—shot, in fact, in 70mm (and if you don't speak geek, that means it looks OH MY GOD! good). It's jaw dropping stuff, right from the (awesome) first shot.

Alas, the cameras they took to the moon had to be a bit more basic—they had weight restrictions that make RyanAir look generous—and the footage there is frustratingly imperfect. Then again, maybe that's only right—the fuzziness and imprecision reminding us of just how far they are.

 

A GRAND DAY OUT

The Apollo space programme cost the US government somewhere in the region of $180bn in today's money, and it's possible that you might be able to come up with better ways of spending that sum. And it's certainly not as if they needed to, as the documentary A Grand Day Out shows—British inventor Wallace fancies sampling the cheese that the moon is famously made of and with the can-do spirit that made this country great, retreats to his shed to build a fully functioning rocket, ably assisted by his co-pilot Gromit.

So take that, NASA. You don't need to spend $18bn. All you need is a bloke and a shed. And a spanner too, probably.