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One o' These Days, Alice...

July 17, 2009 By Dennis Burger

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Apollo 16 Lunar Rover as seen in From All Mankind
Earthrise, courtesy of The Big Picture

Forty years ago yesterday, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin sat on the tip of a big metal stick at the end of a massive explosion and pointed themselves toward the moon. Forty years ago this coming Monday, they arrived at their destination, kicked a little dirt, and said a few words we all know by heart, I'm sure. And to commemorate all of that exploding and dirt kicking and aphorism uttering, The Criterion Collection has released a new gussied up restored version of Al Reinert's seminal 1989 film For All Mankind.

For those of you who've never seen it, the film is a beautiful collection of footage shot by Apollo astronauts, wonderfully cut together into a sort of patchwork narrative that captures the essence of the typical trip to the moon, whatever that may be. It's not a documentary in the truest sense of the word — after all, Apollo 13's oxygen tank rupture is reduced to little more than an oopsy! moment along the way — but then again, it isn't meant to be.

The strength of For All Mankind is in its ability to convey the emotions and revel in the imagery of the disparate Apollo missions, and if doing so this well requires the construction of a Frankensteinian Apollo chimera mission that didn't exactly play out the way it's conveyed onscreen, then so be it.

Apollo 16 Lunar Rover as seen in From All MankindI should probably admit up front, though, that the only reason I requested a copy on Blu-ray is that my wife has forced me to move my DVD collection into storage. Blu-rays are still allowed their freedom (one supposes because there are so fewer of them). And For All Mankind is a film I return to again and again — not merely on monumental anniversaries such as this — so I thought it would be handy to have a BD copy, if for no other reason than convenience.

But really, how much better could a film constructed of four-decade-old 16mm footage shot in space, often at as little as 6 frames per second, look in 1080p? Were I a betting man, I wouldn't have put a dime on being able to tell the difference between the new BD and my well-worn old DVD.

I would have lost that bet. Sure, much of the footage is rough — grainy, jerky, at times a little scratchy — but at its best, For All Mankind simply glistens on Blu-ray. The shots of Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell planting the flag in the Fra Mauro Highlands, for example, are simple staggering in its beauty. And the POV scenes shot from Apollo 16's Lunar Rover look nearly too good to be true.

Given its use of actual NASA footage (presented here in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so expect to see black bars on either side of the image), and its emphasis on the emotional splendor of man's voyage to the moon, For All Mankind does bear resemblance to two later projects: the Discovery Channel's When We Left Earth (especially episode 3, "Landing the Eagle"), as well as Opie Cunningham's awesome In the Shadow of the Moon (whose absence on Blu-ray disc is a crime against humanity).

But in the comparison, For All Mankind comes out the undeniable winner. When We Left Earth is a little too formulaic, and its 1.33:1 footage is all cropped to 16:9; and In the Shadow of the Moon, as amazing as it is, simply lacks some of the immediacy of Reinert's film. It's a perfect mix of words and footage that simply hasn't been bested yet. That's why For All Mankind was the first of many discs to enter my player in my weekend-long video celebration of Neil Armstrong's "one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."


Speaking of footage, NPR has a great story about the failed three-year search to find the original footage of Neil Armstrong's historical first EVA on the lunar surface, along with newly refurbished and restored clips from the best available secondary broadcast sources. Of particular interest is the fact that the restoration is being performed by our friends at Lowry Digital.


If you're looking for a slightly more high-tech way to celebrate the Apollo anniversary this weekend, check out WeChooseTheMoon.org, a stunning virtual recreation of the mission, in real time, merely 40 years late. I watched the launch "live" yesterday morning, and as I type this, we're 42 hours away from Stage 7 of the mission, and 69 hours away from the landing. There's plenty on the site to keep you busy until then, though, from video and photos of the previous stages to Twitter feeds recreating the communications between the Apollo 11 spacecraft and the Capsule Communicator at Mission Control in Houston. 


National Geographic also has a succinct little feature addressing the lies of conspiracy theorists who would deny this, the greatest of all human achievements. If you find yourself dealing with such kooks over the weekend, be sure to also send them to Bad Astronomy, where Phil Plait has spent years debunking such bunk. 

Personally, I prefer Buzz Aldrin's method of handling these fruitcakes, but that's just me:


There are all manner of fabulous tributes to Apollo popping up on the web this week, and undoubtedly we'll see more as the big moment on Monday approaches. The Big Picture has some amazing photos, some of which I've never seen before. Even I Can Has Cheezburger is getting in on the fun:

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures


As for me, I'm about to settle in and start my annual marathon viewing of From the Earth to the Moon — the original 1998 DVD release, that is; not the widescreen edition from a few years back with the top and bottom of the image chopped off. See you guys when I come up for popcorn!

Earthrise, courtesy of The Big Picture


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