Arguably the most avid space buff and NASA booster among contemporary pop culture icons, Tom Hanks enjoyed significant commercial and critical success through his involvement with Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” and his own “From the Earth to the Moon” HBO miniseries. But his third time isn’t a charm: “Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon” is an earnest but insubstantial Imax 3-D spectacle that, even at 40 minutes, seems unduly padded. Obviously aimed at schoolchildren likely to be bused in for matinee screenings, docu offers grown-ups very little that is fresh or insightful, and too much that is facile or hokey.
Pic comes off a hodgepodge of breathless hero worship, cutesy history lessons and melodramatic re-enactments, with a side order of vocational guidance for impressionable youngsters. During an early montage of kids being grilled about NASA history, it’s meant to be hilarious that most of them know little about the history of U.S. space exploration. (At least one confuses Neil Armstrong with Lance Armstrong.)
At the end, however, narrator Hanks sounds a dead-serious note of inspirational encouragement when he asks: Who will be the next explorer to walk on the moon? “Maybe that person is watching right now,” he says. “Maybe the future walker is you.”
“Magnificent Desolation” pays heartfelt tribute to 12 Apollo astronauts who visited the moon between 1969 and 1972. But the actual missions are represented mostly in fuzzy TV news clips shown in tiles that sporadically “float” across the massive Imax screen.
Director Mark Cowen places greater emphasis on aggressively dramatic re-creations, which are used to illustrate Apollo mission highlights — and, not incidentally, fill the entire frame with striking 3-D imagery. (Tech values are undeniably impressive.)
And while pic does include a few key recordings of actual astronaut dialogue, well-known actors (including, most effectively, Morgan Freeman and Bill Paxton) are employed to read salient quotes by the real-life moon men throughout pic. The unfortunate result is, the slick artifice tends to overshadow the real astronauts.
Ironically, verisimilitude of the Imax-size re-enactments indirectly lends a kind of credence to long-circulated conspiracy theories (mockingly acknowledged elsewhere in pic) that the Apollo voyages didn’t really occur, but actually were faked on a Hollywood soundstage.
And speaking of fake: Hanks takes a shameless approach to revving aud interest by dramatizing a “What if?” scenario involving unforeseen catastrophe during a moon mission.
Title refers to Apollo astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s description of lunar landscape.