Apollo 18: A Review And Interview With Technical Advisor Gerry Griffin

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I just had a chance to see the new film "Apollo 18". As I am certain is the case with all of my fellow space cadets, I felt some intellectual trepidation in advance of seeing this film. How anyone could launch a Saturn V without the folks in Cocoa Beach noticing on Christmas day 1974 being one of the more improbable things.

But you get past those nagging little facts at the very onset of the film. Through a deft use of real Apollo era footage and re-created footage (they keep telling you it is real), the film really manages to suspend lingering disbelief rather quickly. Often times its like watching the old grainy 70s era NASA features that NASA TV runs after midnight.

I am not going to get into the plot at at all. Watch the trailer and you get the idea. The viral marketing campaign the film makers employed has helped prepare many viewers for what they will see and they flash the URL for their viral site http://lunartruth.org/ to make certain you visit it.

The look and feel of the film is disarming. The plot is straightforward and it borrows a bit. Its part "Apollo 13", part "Alien", and even part "2001: A Space Odyssey" with a little "Countdown" (remember that one with James Caan?) thrown in. It mixes and mashes genres in an interesting way.

But again, its the attention to detail and the editing of film, video, and sound that makes it work. The logos, the materials, spacecraft interiors - even the font on the labels is spot on. They spent a lot of time on this detail and it shows.

And yes it will startle you out of your seat a couple of times.

And even when the improbable starts to happen, the guys in the film talk the way you'd expect astronauts to talk if faced with such events. That is due in great part to the film's technical advisor, former NASA Johnson Space Center Director Gerry Griffin. This is not his first foray into films either.

What many people do not know is that Griffin has a rather successful second career in Hollywood. He is even a member of SAG (the Screen Actors Guild). Indeed, if you look at the venerable Internet Movie Database (IMDB) you will see that he is listed as an actor.

His sole screen appearance was in the film "Contact" where, in addition to being a technical advisor, he plays the guy behind the mission control console who says all those things in NASAese. He had a similar role in the film "Deep Impact" (where he was also an advisor) but that footage was left on the cutting room floor.

Griffin got his start in films working on "Apollo 13" as a technical advisor. Tom Hanks (who starred in that film) took notice of Griffin and recommended him to Director Robert Zemekis who was starting to work on "Contact" having just completed "Forrest Gump" (staring Hanks). Just as Griffin was completing work on "Contact", the executive producer on that film asked him if he'd like to work on "Deep Impact" - her next project. That's Hollywood. Its who you know.

After an acting hiatus Gerry is back as a technical advisor to the SciFi/horror thriller Apollo 18 which opened in theaters today. I had a chance to talk with him about this experience from his home in Houston.

Griffin likened the experience (his fourth film) as having "a quality not unlike NASA. Its a big team, everyone is goal oriented, you work long hours and you strive to get it right", But unlike NASA, Griffin noted "this is all make believe". He recalled his time with Ron Howard on Apollo 13 wherein Howard kept him close to him at all times to make sure no technical mistakes were made but reminded Griffin "this is not a documentary". The same was the case with "Apollo 18". Griffin had deep insight into the script, the way people would do things on the set, and the overall way that these 70s era astronauts were being portrayed. His job was to make sure that "no one did anything stupid". ANd when you see the film, you can see just how spot on his advice was.

The film was shot mostly in Vancouver with a limited budget. The film did use sets that had been used in "Apollo 13" (the LEM and Command Module) but otherwise things were created on site in Vancouver. The exterior shots of the lunar surface were filmed inside a paper recycling factory in a suburb outside of Vancouver. Tons of dirt were trucked in and a huge mural (no green screen) was used to created the expansive horizon you see in the film. The lunar rover was made by a local model maker. The Russian lander was recreated from external photos of landers in museums since Russia did not want to provide any drawings.

As is often the case with films, a lot of post-production work was done up until a short time before its release. Griffin described some dialog recording (ADR) sessions just a few weeks ago where one actor was in Toronto, another in London, with staff in Vancouver, Los Angeles, and with Griffin in Houston. Despite the large distances they were able to work productively on these last final bits of the film.

While NASA had some coordination with the film (NASA logos are all over the place) the agency has recently sought to distance itself from the film. This is not unexpected since NASA often gets cold feet when it comes to any portrayal of itself or its missions that does not conform to their own self-image. I asked Gerry Griffin what he thought about this - since he has seen it in previous films he's worked on.

"Lighten up" he said. "This is a work of fiction. Where did we [NASA] start to get so serious? This is fiction. If it had objectionable content I can understand their reluctance but there is none. In fact, I think NASA's recent reaction probably helps with the film's overall marketing.

He then went on to say "Isn't it great that the American film industry is making stories about space. Some are realistic, others are not but they now want to make films that cover it all - from soup to nuts - from fact to fiction. I think it is great that our society now has a genre that includes space - one that has become part of the global fabric.

People's fascination with space conspiracies has always intrigued me. Facts are irrelevant once someone has made up their mind about something - usually involving the big evil government covering something up - usually evidence of aliens visiting us. I have some personal experience with this via my involvement with the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) which is being run on a low budget basis outside the gate at NASA Ames Research Center in a McDonalds hamburger joint that closed years ago. The building was free and we were not fussy. With my co-lead Dennis Wingo and a lot of help from NASA and volunteers, we managed to restore images from the original 40+ year analog data tapes at unprecedented resolution when compared to what people saw in the 1960s. More information can be found at the official LOIRP website at http://www.moonviews.com

I bring up LOIRP for one reason: the nature of the original photos and what people imagine they see. Unlike most planetary missions, the Lunar Orbiter probes took their images on conventional film which was chemically processed in lunar orbit, scanned electronically, and the data sent back to Earth by radio. While the automated photo developing process itself was amazing, it had flaws. Often times problems with the chemicals or the gears would leave blobs and strange shapes on the images. ANyone who has spent time looking at the photos knows what I mean.

Well ... some people with over active imaginations have concluded that a secret government agency obliterated certain things to keep us from learning the truth (whatever that might be). Secret moon bases I guess. Others see strange shapes which they have decided are bulldozers or cities. What they never bother to check is the scale of these photos. If there were indeed bulldozers on the Moon these Lunar Orbiter photos they'd be 10 miles high.

When we were getting ready to release the images some of the nutty websites got word and came up with all manner of zany conspiracy theories. My favorite was linking the fact that we were doing this in "McDonalds" with "McDonnell Douglas" and some evil dark conspiracy. The fact that they can't even note the difference in the spelling of these names says a lot. They also made a lot of the fact that ARC's Center Director is a former USAF Brigadier General. Oh yes, and there is that pirate flag I hung in the window - that didn't help either.

Oh well. Its all good fun, I suppose - just like the movie Apollo 18.

As Gerry Griffin so aptly put it "Lighten up" Go see it. Have some fun.


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