Sunday, September 22, 2019


I don't normally like to recommend movies that are only available via streaming, but with how little space I've got on my DVR, I kind of have to. This time out, that movie is Marooned, which is available on Amazon and Google Play among others.

The movie starts off with little establishing action, showing the launch of an Apollo mission, but not one to the moon. This one is taking three astronauts: Pruett (Richard Crenna), Lloyd (Gene Hackman), and Stone (James Franciscus) to an orbiting space station where they're going to spend seven months to observe the effects of long-term space travel on humans, in preparation for the interplanetary space voyages that are supposedly going to become common (the movie was released at the end of 1969, before we knew what was going to happen to the space program). Five months into the mission, however, the folks back down on earth are seeing all sorts of mental issues with the astronauts, so it's decided to end the mission early and bring them home.

The astronauts get into the space capsule to go home, which requires firing the retrorockets. They flip the switch and... nothing happens. So, they try again, and... still nothing happens. This is a serious problem. In theory, the capsule could orbit the earth for decades, even without fuel to adjust the orbit, until the orbit degrades enough for the capsule to burn up in the atmosphere. Of course, the astronauts don't have food for decades, and far more importantly, they don't have oxygen for very long. At the current rate of usage, there's about 42 hours left, after which the astronauts would suffocate to death.

Charles Keith (Gregory Peck) is the commander of the mission back at NASA in Houston. He's got a lot to deal with in addition to the problem up in space. The three astronauts all have wives who know even if they don't want to admit it publicly that their husbands are probably going to die up in space. There's also all the media asking uncomfortable questions since NASA doesn't exactly want to be completely candid about the problems with the mission. And there's still the question of what to do.

Keith's underling, Ted Dougherty (David Janssen), has a daring idea. Apparently the Air Force has come up with an experimental rocket that is more maneuverable. Since the situation is desperate, why not send that up into space and rescue the stranded astronauts? Keith nixes the idea at first, probably because he doesn't want more people to die. But eventually he relents, and preparations are made.

But there are more complications, both on earth and up in space. The astronauts, in looking down at earth, saw the formation of a hurricane before anybody else, these being the days before satellite weather imagery became commonplace. Originally it looked as though the hurricane was going to go out to sea, but it winds up heading straight for Cape Canaveral! Further, the three astronauts up in space are getting antsy and rebelling to the extent they can. Finally, calculations are made that there might be enough oxygen left for two men, but not for three....

I really enjoyed Marooned. It's a gripping, simple story, made before the Apollo 13 mission even happened. The idea of a rescue mission is a bit unrealistic, but it's also not the sort of thing that's so ridiculous that you can't suspend disbelief. One thing that I really liked is that the story doesn't really get sidetracked by any of the characters having back stories. The wives (played by Lee Grant, Mariette Hartley, and Nancy Kovack) are there for the matter-of-fact reason that this was the practice. Nobody's really trying to overcome personal demons or such stuff.

Much is made of the special effects, which won an Oscar, and it's right to mention them. For the most part they seem quite good. The capsule is pretty claustrophobic, and the zero-gravity looks fairly realistic. The one quibble I had was with some of the matte shots of the earth in the background behind the space capsule. It took me a while to figure out where over the earth the capsule was at first, in part because the rendition of the Iberian and Italian peninsulas was rather inaccurate. For everything they did with the other effects, you'd think they would have noticed that. But that's also the sort of stuff I'm normally nitpicky about.

The minor quibble is nowhere near enough for me to give anything less than a high recommendation to Marooned, which I think still holds up well 50 years later. It's also one that really deserves to be on DVD.

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