Friday, January 20, 2012

Richard Garriot: Man on a Mission

RICHARD GARRIOT:  MAN ON A MISSION       B-                   
USA  (83 mi)  2010  d:  Mike Woolf                Official site                  
During the middle of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, a time when people are out of work and losing their homes in record numbers, when there are more homeless children attending schools than any other time in our nation’s history, when businesses are dissolving and schools and states are bankrupt and can’t find the funding for essential programs, this director decides to make a film about a gazillionaire?  Going into the film one has to wonder who’s really interested?  What could that possibly have to do with anyone’s actual life these days?  If the guy wants to spend his fortune jumping off cliffs in Acapulco, or dining in the best establishments in the world, collecting stamps or Maserati’s, build schools, adopt orphans, teach himself Chinese, or learning to hang-glide, it’s his right to do as he pleases.  But why should anybody care?  When it turns out the guy wants to donate $30 million dollars to the Russian space industry in order to become the 6th private citizen allowed to travel into space, one can’t exactly be surprised.  The whole world is on a Reality TV kick where they can make a television show and now a movie on just about anything, and in a sense, that’s exactly what this is, as the film is a kind of infomercial on one man’s mission into outer space, documenting his every move in preparation for the flight as well as the 12 days he spent aboard the International Space Station.  What’s most surprising, however, is the film is a kick, especially the bouncy and always upbeat music from Brian Satterwhite and John Constant (from Candi and the Strangers), which from the opening sounds a bit like Ennio Morricone from the Sergio Leone films, which couldn’t be more curiously atmospheric.  As it turns out, Richard Garriot was a geeky kid who felt every kid’s dream was to be an astronaut, which was accentuated in his own childhood because his own father actually flew as one of the first science officers on two space missions, 60 days on Skylab 3 in 1973 and 10 days aboard Spacelab-1 in 1983, which was the 6th mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Nearsightedness prevented Richard from ever becoming an astronaut, even after successful laser surgery, but he built a fortune designing video games, creating his first interactive game at 17 just for fun, where each successive attempt was more successful, eventually selling over a million copies.  His wealth allowed him to follow in his father’s footsteps by purchasing a seat from Space Adventures, a USA based space tourism company, aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for $30 million dollars.  This film documents his extensive preparation for an October 2008 mission, which includes a great deal of scientifically induced physical stress in order to simulate anticipated conditions of space travel, where nearly everyone gets space sickness almost immediately upon exiting the earth’s atmosphere.  What separates this film from other space missions is the more personal point of view, as it doesn’t include the data heavy NASA slant, where almost every move is scientifically calculated.  Instead, Richard is still a geeky guy with a pleasant social demeanor, who can’t help expressing his gratitude at every step of the journey, as he knows how unique an opportunity this is, the first American father and son team to ever venture into space.  By the time he passes his final exam, where his every move is evaluated by scores of Russian military advisors, he’s on his way to Baikonur in Kazakhstan, the home of the Russian space center, where he’s greeted by his father, and the family of others headed into space.  The actual liftoff is nothing less than breathtaking, where the beauty and grace belie the physical sickness that must accompany being shot out of a cannon straight up into the atmosphere with sufficient force to break the gravitational field.  Since Richard, looking a bit like Paul Giamotti, is just an ordinary guy, not a trained astronaut, one can only imagine what kind of punishing ordeal this must be. 

Richard’s point of view remains being awestruck at every turn, trying to get the hang of objects floating in thin air, keeping food from flying away, where you don’t move from place to place as much as float, where he gets along well with the other cosmonauts, hooking up to relieve several others at the International Space Station, one of whom has that wild Kaurismäki hair that resembles the Leningrad Cowboys (Home - LENINGRAD COWBOYS * Buena Vodka Social Club), where some will remain for months while Richard will return to earth with the replaced cosmonauts.  What’s most impressive is the view of earth from outer space, where what surprised him the most was the condensed areas of population, as the rest of the earth simply didn’t look like that.  He compared the actual Space Station to the Fritz Lang movie METROPOLIS (1927), where the American section was clean and bright, actually looking sterile and antisceptic, while the Russian sector was darker and more lived in, showing plenty of clutter and general disorganization, which perfectly matches the contrast between Kubrick’s immaculately clean look of 2001:  A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (1972) where the rundown space ship is seen in a state of disarray bordering on chaos.  One amusing scene on the Space Station shows 3 weightless men attempting to chase one another in a circular cylinder, much like a hamster running wheel.  Richard takes great care to contact ham radio enthusiasts from outer space, something his father did as well, where there’s a special connection between both of them that’s rather extraordinary, as his father shares his every move and most likely planned or coordinated his activities in space, which includes being there when the aircraft returns to earth.  The idea of encouraging other civilians to purchase a ticket to space is ridiculously absurd, considering the price, yet this is a walking advertisement for exactly that. 

Note – While not in the film, apparently there is an 8-minute science fiction film shot in space by Richard Garriot while aboard the International Space Station, assisted by two fellow Americans and one Russian cosmonaut called Apogee of Fear, written for him by Tracy Hickman, which apparently makes numerous references to classic science-fiction movies including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956) and Galaxy Quest (1999).  The movie has finally cleared NASA’s scrutiny for public release, as it was Garriot’s intention to include it in the documentary MAN ON A MISSION, but it was still under administrative review, apparently done without NASA’s knowledge and consent.   

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