The entire universe expands when Neil Armstrong steps onto the surface of the moon in First Man. By placing his big honking space boots on the rocky terrain, the astronaut, played with Drive-like stoicism by Ryan Gosling, makes one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. Director Damien Chazelle, the technical wizard behind La La Land and Whiplash, emphasizes the visceral power of the moment by opening up the imagery's scope to the full IMAX aspect ratio, filling up the entire screen with the gray stretch of ground. It's stunning, poetic, and super, super fake.
As First Man's screenwriter Josh Singer explained when the movie was released back in October, the moon sequence was shot in a quarry in Atlanta, the low-gravity effects achieved using wires and balloons. Pure Hollywood hokum.
The film earned strong reviews from critics and appreciative words from Armstrong's sons ahead of its debut. But First Man underperformed at the box office, grossing less than $50 million domestically, and it failed to receive any Oscar nominations in non-technical categories. (Heading into the awards season, it was considered a Best Picture favorite.) Analysts pointed to the movie's long runtime, its somber tone, and even the insipid controversy about the visibility of the American flag as possible reasons for its financial struggles. With audiences and the Academy, the movie failed to connect.
Here's a proposal no one has suggested: They should have sent Ryan Gosling to the actual moon.
Spurred by the success of blockbusters like Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, and Ridley Scott's The Martian, the "auteur space movie" has become a reliable sub-genre for studios, but it's an increasingly crowded field. This year, A24 will unleash Claire Denis' sexually-charged arthouse space-thriller High Life, starring Robert Pattinson, and 20th Century Fox will fire up James Gray's father-son space epic Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt; streaming services have also gotten in on the action with shows like Hulu's (now canceled) Sean Penn-goes-to-Mars drama The First and Apple's upcoming For All Mankind, which comes from Battlestar Galactica producer Ronald D. Moore and imagines an alternate history where the space race never ended. The fear of space-movie burnout feels justified. What better way to stand out -- and prove your filmmaking bona fides -- than to send a fresh-faced movie star into orbit?