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Man on the Moon: Remembering Neil Armstrong

The world was rocked last Saturday with the news of the passing of the legendary Neil Armstrong. Join us as we pay tribute to this most daring—and humble—of men by rounding up some of our favorite movie astronauts.

This past Saturday, Neil Armstrong passed away at the age of 82. Armstrong, the first human to walk upon the surface of the moon, is synonymous with the era of American excellence that culminated in his extraterrestrial heroics. His likeness and words (you know the quote) will live on through those who knew this extraordinary man personally and through the media that he reluctantly—but graciously—tolerated.

Armstrong has been featured in well-respected projects such as Apollo 13 (played by Mark Wheeler) and the hit HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (played by Tony Goldwyn), and he has achieved pop culture status through the use of his name/likeness (surely unauthorized) for minor characters in two recent mega-blockbusters: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (played by Don Jeanes) and Men in Black 3 (played by Jared Johnston). How is that for immortality?

In Neil Armstrong’s honor, and in recognition of the status his courage has bestowed on astronauts in general, we thought it appropriate to take a look at five of our favorite astronaut characters to have graced the silver screen.

The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)
Johnny Depp as Commander Spencer Armacost

What I am is a true American hero. Now, the President of the United States of America said that, and you heard it

While The Astronaut’s Wife is somewhat of a B-movie mess, Johnny Depp’s unhinged performance as Commander Spencer Armacost cannot help but stand out. Depp’s incredibly attractive (and southern!) Spencer is on a routine space-walking mission with a member of his team when a sudden explosion results in a two-minute communication gap between the astronauts and Earth. What do you suppose happened in those few minutes? That’s right—alien possession. Spencer’s comely wife, Jillian (Charlize Theron doing her best Mia Farrow impression), soon realizes that the Spencer who returns from space is not the man she married. Depp camps it up mightily as the astronaut-turned-alien, and life for Jillian, who soon discovers that she’s pregnant with his alien twins, is never the same. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, right?

Moon (2009)
Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell

You've been up here too long, man. You’ve lost your marbles.

Screened at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Moon is a unique and powerful character study that has essentially revitalized the science-fiction genre. Helmed by first time feature director Duncan Jones, this futuristic story pays direct homage to the classics sci-fi flicks of the 70s and 80s but is also broodingly modernistic. Sam Rockwell gives a mesmerizing performance as Sam Bell, an astronaut who, at the end of his three-year stint as the sole worker in Lunar Industries’ station on the moon’s surface, discovers an alarming conspiracy involving his sinister employer. He must rely on the help from a unexpected ally (or two!) and GERTY, an artificial intelligence computer (voiced by an eerie Kevin Spacey), in a desperate attempt to stay alive and return safely home to his wife and daughter.

Terms of Endearment (1983)
Jack Nicholson as Garrett Breedlove

A hundred and six astronauts in the whole f*cking world and I'm one of ’em!

While Terms of Endearment is primarily known for the relationship between the Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (the fabulous Debra Winger), the movie would not be nearly as compelling without Jack Nicholson’s rakish and complex performance as retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove. Both MacLaine and Nicholson won Oscars for their roles, and Nicholson had a ball playing the frustratingly charming Garrett—a smooth-talking thrill seeker who happens to be one of the brilliant minds in the country. Garrett ultimately proves to be a man of surprising depth who is the sole comfort of Aurora and Emma’s children after Emma’s untimely death, proving that astronauts can be heroes in more ways than one.

Apollo 13 (1995)
Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell

From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.

Apollo 13, one of the great films of the 90s, dramatizes the real-life events surrounding the infamous flight of Apollo 13. When a routine procedure causes an explosion, three astronauts are thrust into a fight for survival 250,000 miles from earth. Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, exemplifies all of qualities regularly associated with Neil Armstrong—intelligence, bravery, leadership, and daring. Alongside Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), Lovell must work with a frantic NASA team to figure out a way to get the balky spaceship back to earth while keeping his crew focused and determined. Hanks plays Lovell as a practical dreamer, who before the flight longed for nothing more than to walk on the moon. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Lovell watches the moon pass by from the window of the Apollo 13 with the realization dawning that he will never walk on its surface. After a moment of silent, Lovell gets back to the mission at hand, getting his crew safely back home.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Keir Dullea as Dave Bowman

Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, long considered one of the great films of the 20th century, features Keir Dullea as the unfortunate astronaut Dave Bowman. Bowman is one of two people not in cryogenic hibernation aboard Discovery One on its trip to Mars. The only company that he and his colleague Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) have is HAL 9000, the ship’s computer. When HAL begins to malfunction, the two men become wary of the machine and plot to deactivate the unit. HAL, being able to read lips, strikes first, killing Poole during a spacewalk and taking care of the hibernating scientists as well. Bowman, helpless and trapped in a space pod floating in orbit, constructs an elaborate plan to get into the ship through the emergency airlock. As a depiction of the essential loneliness and vulnerability of the astronaut, 2001: A Space Odyssey is without equal.

Who’d we leave off? Tell us your favorite movie astronauts!


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