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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Marooned

"Hard" science fiction was not common, but Marooned proved it was still a viable sub-genre. Given the then-current advances in manned space flight, the story seems less fictional. it is certainly less "fantastic" than stories with aliens or monsters. Marooned was a big-budget "A" production by Columbia. It starred A-level talent such as Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus, and Gene Hackman.

  Quick Plot Synopsis
Three astronauts are launched into orbit to man an orbiting space station. Commander Jim Pruett (Crenna), Buzz Lloyd (Hackman) and Clayton Stone (Franciscus). All seems routine and going well enough. The goal was to test man's endurance for prolonged space flight, for future interplanetary missions. After five of the seven months, however, the men as showing degraded abilities. They are ordered back to earth two months early. Strapped in their Apollo command module, their retro-engine fails to fire. Many efforts are made in the ship and on the ground, to solve the mysterious failure, but nothing seems to work. The crew have only enough oxygen for 42 hours. While launch director Keith (Peck) is stoically resigned to their slow deaths, astronaut Ted Dougherty (Janssen) insists on mounting a rescue mission using an untried shuttle craft. Keith resists the risky plan until the President tells him ALL efforts must be made to rescue the men. A booster slated for a later launch is set up. The "Lift Body" prototype is airlifted in. To add to the tension, a hurricane is bearing down on Florida, due to make landfall at launch. The crew of the ill-fated Ironman One are conserving their oxygen as best they can, but their nerves are beginning to crack. Lloyd, especially, is the loose cannon. High winds force cancellation of the rescue flight. Again, Keith is resigned to their loss. The crew say their veiled goodbyes to their wives. Meteorologists bring word that the "eye" of the hurricane will pass over the cape. All readiness is made to launch during the calm of the eye. Rescue One launches successfully, but late. There isn't enough oxygen aboard Ironman One for all three of them to survive to the rendezvous time. After tense talk about who will be the odd man out, Pruett bravely insists he will go EVA and fix the engine. His space suit gets ripped on the antenna. He dies and drifts off into space. Stone and Lloyd deteriorate more. A Russian cosmonaut steers his Soyuz nearby to help. Dilerious Lloyd blows the hatch, which pushes Ironman One too far away for the Russian to reach them. Stone pushes the semi-conscious Lloyd over, but the Russian can't catch him. He drifts away. Dougherty arrives on the scene. He jet-packs over to retrieve Lloyd. The Russian is helping Stone when Dougherty arrives with spare oxygen. They're saved. At mission control, there is much rejoicing. Rescue One fires its engines for re-entry. The End.

 Why is this movie fun?
The visuals were luscious, even if not on a par with Kubrik's. The acting was solid enough to forget they were actors. Knowing that Apollo 13 would happen just four months later is the stuff of goosebumps.

Cold War Angle
It seems that Cold War hysteria was cooling somewhat by the late 60s. The Russians (via the anonymous cosmonaut) are the good samaritan, not the evil empire.

  Notes
A Tale of Two Novels -- Science fiction writer Martin Caidin wrote his original "Marooned" novel in 1964. It was a similar story to the movie, except that it was a Mercury capsule (one man). The (then) untried two-man Gemini capsule was the rescue craft. When the movie was in the works in the late 60s, the NASA technology was upgraded to a stricken Apollo module. The rescue craft by then, was the cutting-edge "Lift Body" type of craft. Caidin rewrote his story in '69, to align with the screenplay and released this second version when the movie went public.

  "Hard" SciFi -- A small portion of sci-fi films dealt with space travel in practical (if still future-tech), not the fanciful stuff of saucers and aliens. The first such film of the Golden Era was Destination Moon ('50). Marooned has some affinities to DM in that it is also a drama about astronauts almost facing death in outer space. Other films in this sub-genre include: Magnetic Monster ('53), Riders to the Stars ('54), Conquest of Space ('55), the Soviet version of Nebo Zovyot ('60), not the Corman adaptations, and the middle portion of Kubrik's 2001.

Lost in Space -- Note how Marooned and 2001 both include an extended scene in which an astronaut is lost, drifting off into the void of space, and his fellow astronaut free-flights over to retrieve him. Lesser films, from Riders to the Stars ('54) to Mission Mars ('68) include a lost, dead astronaut too. Apparently, the thought of being lost forever in space carried a special horror in the early days of space travel.

  Prophetic Tale -- It is interesting to note that the premise of Marooned got played out in reality in the Apollo 13 mission just four months after the movie came out. Granted, there we deviations from the script. Reality is like that. But both film and reality had a three-man Apollo crew potentially trapped in space due to a malfunction. In both cases, they were in danger of running out of oxygen before the "rescue" could happen. With just a little artistic license, the Apollo 13 LEM served as a parallel "Rescue One", though not in exactly the same way.

  Shuttle Seeds -- The "LIft Body" rescue craft in Marooned, and the somewhat similar "Lift Body" used in "Journey to the Far Side of the Sun," were studio prop makers expressions of the cutting-edge thinking of the late 60s for space craft. Re-usable re-entry craft had always been part of NASA research thinking, but lost out to the more practical "ballistic" style re-entry approach. Still technology and materials kept advancing. NASA had several configurations. In 1969, President Nixon formed a task force that eventually shaped a program that culminated in America's Space Shuttle fleet.

  Tough Women -- Also worth noting is how the three wives were portrayed. They were not the usual movie sex-objects, nor the traditional damsel in distress to be rescued, nor the saucy shew to be tamed by the hero. Instead, they were the stoic wives -- brave women of brave men. They added pathos to the screenplay, but were thankfully not interjected beyond that.

 Bottom line? Marooned is somewhat slow paced for modern audience tastes, but gets more conventionally active in the last quarter. In the late 60s, anything to do with NASA had a fascination of its own that could bridge the longer scenes. Modern audiences without that fascination will feel the pace drags. Yet, Marooned is a well told drama of danger, entrapment and daring rescue. They could have been miners, or sailors on an experimental sub, or any number of other scenarios. With that, and some patience, the film can be enjoyed, even by people not normal fond of sci-fi.

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