There’s no question that it’s a good thing that video game magnate Richard Garriott took cameras with him after he agreed to pay his way onto the International Space Station in 2008. It’s a story that deserves to be immortalized, and that people (especially those who might be skeptical of the privatized space travel, often called “space tourism”) ought to see the footage. The only problem is that the documentary which resulted from Garriott’s footage, Man on a Mission, has too little art to it. For a story this big, the film seems entirely too small.
The issue is that Garriott, who created the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) when he designed Ultima for the Apple II decades ago, isn’t a filmmaker. His chosen director, Mike Woolf, has some documentary shorts and television doc work under his belt, but he’s no Michael Moore either. As a result, the movie’s canvas is very small. The first 45-50 minutes of the movie chronicle Garriott’s cosmonaut training, and it’s dry enough to be shown in high school science classes. I slept for a long stretch of this part of the film, and I’m told that I wasn’t the only Movie Klubber to do so.
At the end of his training, Garriott visits the garden where every Russian cosmonaut all the way back to Yuri Gagarin has planted a tree, and he and his father Owen Garriott plant a tree there. Owen Garriott was an American astronaut himself, most famous for a lengthy stretch spent about the former space station Skylab, and so this scene should have been moving. It should have been a little dusty in the Movie Klub headquarters as Owen got to watch Richard, whose bad eyesight would have kept him from ever entering space with NASA, follow in his footsteps. That didn’t happen, because the film devotes as much time and camera effort to the tree-planting as it does to minor details like the molding of plaster for Richard’s spacesuit. The Richard-Owen connection comes off as a nice little story, but one never gets the feeling that it was a much bigger deal for the men involved.
Once Richard gets into space, the movie becomes much more interesting, simply because it’s not easy to find this much extra-terrestrial footage shot in HD anywhere. My generation saw the occasional news clip from inside the various space shuttles; generations after mine probably haven’t even seen that much. The first time that you see men floating around in zero gravity – in a way that, somehow, not even the most sophisticated Hollywood films have been able to accurately capture – the film suddenly obtains a much greater scale. The first half of the film talks about space tourism being a big deal, but it’s not until the Earth’s horizon is visible through the portholes of the ISS that this film really delivers the message.
Astronauts are not professional performers, of course, so the big danger with the second half of the movie is that space living might actually become dull. If this section of the movie went on too long, it could be that, as Apollo 13 put it, space travel would look as interesting as a trip to Pittsburgh. But the ISS is not a cramped moon module; there’s enough space and scientific interests aboard that the film never bogs down. Garriott seems disappointed to leave, as though there was so much more that he could have done, and the audience can sense that disappointment.
I don’t want to sound too negative about Man on a Mission, because Garriott’s story is a pleasant and interesting one. It’s just that this story should compare to something like Tom Hanks’ Emmy-winning HBO documentary From the Earth to the Moon, and it doesn’t, not even close. Google founder Sergey Brin is interviewed in the film, and he says that Garriott’s story makes him more interested in space tourism; perhaps he should bring Errol Morris along for the ride.
Reviewed by Mark Young