Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Apollo 11

Man, I would have liked to see this in Imax, but its limited North American run in the format came while I was overseas on vacation, and the giant screens there were split between Alita and Captain Marvel where I was. No big deal, I saw awesome sights there as well, and the Somerville's upgraded screen #3 is pretty nice.

It's worth noting that it's still kicking around there, if maybe not on that exact screen, while their sister cinema in Arlington is still showing They Shall Not Grow Old once or twice a day, not bad legs for a couple documentaries that might be seen as niche and reasons to doubt their distribution (Warner initially only planned "event" screenings for TSNGO until those proved too popular, while Apollo's Neon often would seemingly prefer a cult hit to the sort that makes money in most cases). A certain amount of that is probably being driven by historically-minded or nostalgic elders who know the material won't make them uncomfortable buying discounted tickets, but I suspect and hope that the way these films are made is part of it as well.

These movies are experiences, not so much because they are visual spectaculars, but because they are immersive. Peter Jackson and Todd Douglas Miller built these movies to spend as little time as possible repeating facts versus putting the audience directly into the action, choosing and upgrading the footage that did that the best. Both had initial releases that were designed to dominate the senses in ways television mostly can't, be it 3D or Imax (and though it may seem like heresy, I'd be fascinated to see what a 3D-ified Apollo 11 was like). Documentaries are often built to resemble television news programs, even when destined for the big screen, but this one is built to lose something when seen at home.

I also like Apollo 11 as a reminder that film looks really good. The 50-year-old footage probably doesn't need much polish, and I think some in the audience might have been a bit surprised at that. Part of that is how we've mostly seen these events as NTSC footage, and it plays in with I've noticed that whenever an older movie got a high-def release or shows on film, people were kind of shocked at how good it looks after years of being conditioned to associate movies above a certain age with broadcast or VHS copies and thinking that was their natural state. It's less prevalent now that 1080p has become the standard, but I suspect that many don't realize that in many cases older movies might benefit more from a 4K HDR release than recent ones (for example, can you imagine the eyes that a 4K Powell & Pressburger set would melt?).

I hope this gets a 4K release itself, although I hope even more that the Aquarium will be able to get hold of a genuine celluloid Imax print and show that for a few weeks.

Apollo 11

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2019 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

While recommending Apollo 11 to friends and family on social media, there was an interjection that there is probably less "rediscovered" footage in the film than the marketing would have one believe, that most of what people are treating as new here has been in other documentaries, both about the first mission to the moon and NASA more generally. Likely true, but also kind of adjacent to what I was actually saying about how people should try and catch it as part of its limited (but longer-than-expected) run: It's terrifically put together and undeniably amazing to look at.

There have been other NASA documentaries, of course, but many of them have been done for television, and mostly before high definition was the order of the day, and even when they were done for theatrical presentation (and seen that way), they would often use the television footage, either because that was what was available, because the filmmakers wanted to strike an emotional chord with baby boomers and how they remembered these events, or even to emphasize how analog and low-tech what NASA had to work with was relative to the present. Those are all valid reasons to present such a film that way, but eventually that grainy video becomes too much a part of how one pictures the event, as opposed to just an artifact of the medium.

For Apollo 11, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller instead finds the best sources he can, including some relatively rare 65mm footage, has the picture and sound cleaned up, and generally saves the NTSC video for when there's no other footage of an iconic moment, and seen on the big screen, it's something of a revelation: Visual detail pops in ways that much of the audience has never seen it before, and a barrier that those who hadn't lived through the events (by now, most of the film's potential audience) seems to be lifted. Heck, much of the actual time on the surface on the moon is presented as the clearest, highest-resolution stills he could find, to make sure that the sharp edges and incredible clarity of vacuum make more of an impression than the limits of what could be broadcast live back then. The footage itself is often functional, unmistakably shot by engineers and technicians to be useful before concerns of artistry, but as such it gives the audience a sense of scope and scale. What's important is always front and center, but there's room for the curious eye to wander, and when a shot does seem odd or awkward, that tells a story too, of tight quarters where the film camera can't quite get as close as one might like.

Full review on EFilmCritic

No comments: