Magnificent Desolation

An IMAX documentary. Rated general. Now playing at the C.N. IMAX Theatre

When NASA realized that the space program no longer captured the imagination of ordinary people, it found the most ordinary individual possible and put him into orbit. That is how Homer Simpson became an astronaut. But that is The Simpsons. In real life, NASA has obtained the services of Tom Hanks as producer and narrator of an IMAX film depicting the moon missions of three decades past. On the evidence of Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D, NASA might have been better off with Homer.

Technically, the film looks as good as any 3-D film ever made. IMAX has perfected the process of displaying images in three dimensions. The polarized lenses are comfortable and efficiently integrate the crisp colour images into a convincing display of genuine depth. The movie deals with a fascinating period of human (let alone American) history and is relevant today, given NASA's recent commitment to manned exploration of the moon and Mars. Hanks is a genial and familiar presence, and he appears to be a sincere space buff, having now produced two space-related projects in addition to his starring role as Jim Lovell in the excellent 1995 drama Apollo 13.

But this is still a rather dull movie. Mere critics should generally refrain from suggesting how a film could have been better, but in this instance better approaches seem howlingly obvious. Consider the introductory segment-the film's moment of defining and justifying itself-in which a variety of children are asked about their knowledge of America's manned space program. Their naive and incorrect answers are obviously meant to make us smile ruefully and yearn for the revival of NASA's cultural (and budgetary) prominence. But the questions themselves are not investigated. The kids are asked the following: Who was Neil Armstrong? How do astronauts go to the toilet in space? What did they eat? These are great questions! Surely it is not enough to mock their ignorance, as if the truth were obvious. A movie like this should revere and exalt Neil Armstrong the man. It should, if raising the issue, dare to give us the nitty-gritty of the bathroom arrangements, the food, the quality of life in space. And while they are selling cosmic exploration, make a business case: show us the boons, the spinoffs, all the many beneficial technological developments.

What we do get are scenes of moon walks, but in the most ironic way possible. The narration notes that some people doubt that the moon trips ever occurred, and believe they were faked. The film, astoundingly, then gives us a huge whack of simulated moon footage, inadvertently strengthening the "fraudulent moon shot" theory. So the content is self-defeating as well as tediously monochrome. The moon is obviously grey, but opportunities for emotional colour are not taken, apart from a too-brief segment illustrating the hazards of lunar navigation. More danger equals more awe. Combine this lack of filmmaking sense with the missed arguments, and you have a work of propaganda that leaves me supporting its cause less today than yesterday.