It's another of those "realistic space travel" movies in 2000, following in the footsteps of Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998. As far as I'm concerned, of all of them it's also clearly the best and the most entertaining. There are four reasons for this and their names are Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner.
It's not even close. I didn't hate Red Planet
and Mission to Mars
, but I didn't fall in love with them either. This film on the other hand is great.
I've seen it called a comedy-drama. I don't know what that means, unless real drama isn't meant to have jokes and someone didn't send me the memo, but the important thing is that there are laughs here. The central idea is that NASA finds itself dependent on a bunch of old-timers who haven't been involved in the space race since 1958, but have unexpectedly stumbled across an excuse to get back into the action and aren't planning to let anyone off the hook until they've got off-planet for themselves. The head of NASA hates this idea, but that's okay. They hate him too.
The plot is hilariously predictable. I don't think there's a single story development that hasn't been telegraphed somewhere between 30 and 120 minutes in advance. This starts with the Russian "communications satellite" (ho ho), that you'll know for a stone-cold fact is actually loaded with... okay, you've guessed already. Damn, you're quick. NASA's problem is that its guidance system was designed by Clint Eastwood in the 1950s and none of its high-tech boys know enough archeology to be able to stop its orbit from decaying. However the plot doesn't matter, because Eastwood and the boys are having so much fun. It's good enough. It does the job. It's pure formula, but they make it work.
We all know Eastwood's going to visit his old team one by one and persuade them to sign up, finishing with his old rival (Jones) who'll say no and then a couple of scenes later change his mind. Babies in their cribs can predict that they'll be struggling through NASA's physical training program. Hmmm, do you think there might be a scene in which our heroes do something supposedly impossible on the computer simulator, then for the finale end up having to do it in real life?
The film's basic joke is obvious, but it's also a good one. There's a lot of entertainment to be had from seeing Eastwood's gang rattling around NASA and winding up the boss. I'd be laughing just to see them walking through the front door. Garner's a natural, of course, with more star power and charm than any ten other actors. Tommy Lee Jones is pure class. Donald Sutherland is playing an adorable old lecher, in a role that they'd wanted for Sean Connery. (Similarly Jack Nicholson was supposed to play Garner's role.) Connery in particular would have been awesome, but Sutherland is such a joy to watch that even with hindsight I don't mind not having seen Connery's Bond sleazing it up beside Eastwood. If you've ever wanted to know what real movie stars can bring to a movie, watch this one.
Finally there's Eastwood, who also directed, produced and wrote the theme song. He doesn't have the same charisma as the others, but that's okay. That's not his style. He's Clint Eastwood.
Oh, and in case you think the premise too far-fetched, two years earlier John Herschel Glenn (born 1921) had gone back into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery at the age of 77. Many decades before that, he'd been the first American and the third person to orbit the Earth. In comparison, at the time of this film, Eastwood was 70, Jones was 54, Sutherland was 65 and Garner was 72.
The film's not as strong once we get up in space, since the scenes on the ground had been funnier. I still liked it after that, but not as much. However fortunately we're well into the second hour before the shuttle takes off. Before that we've had Eastwood knocking heads with a politician, the gang buying their younger rivals a round of baby food and an all-male OAP nude scene. On paper, this is not a good film. Someone even says "I'm getting too old for this shit." However I loved the first half and liked the second, simply because it's a joy to watch these old pros in action. Recommended.
"Sarah, would you excuse us a minute? This is about to become a personal matter."