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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

‘Apollo 13’ and geeks as heroes

A few years ago I put together a list of my own personal top 100 films, those movies have been the most influential on my love of movies. I’ve just updated the list (see it here) with a few films from the early 2000s, but for the most part, the films on the list cluster in the 1980s and early 90s, because I’m a Generation Xer and that’s when my brain was in its most malleable, most warpable period. And because Xerness is in many ways synonymous with geekiness (as I’m attempting to chronicle at Geek Philosophy), many of these 100 films have come to be understood, in that telepathic way that pop culture seems to work among us Xers, as geek classics… and the ones that aren’t seen that way, well, I can connect them.

So, in no particular order, I’ll take a quick look back at the films on that list, one film each Wednesday. Today:

#80: APOLLO 13 (1995):
If there’s one moment in time that presaged the geekification of Western society on the whole — you know, like how it’s now cool to play with computers — surely it was the 1969 moon landing. While it may have been prompted by a war (the Cold one), this wasn’t a spectacular, unignorable application of technology like, say, the first hydrogen bomb. This was spectacular, unignorable science done in the spirit of exploration and adventure that all of humanity could celebrate (well, except maybe the Kremlin). This was a big, showy WOW! isn’t-science-cool moment.

Most of us Xers either weren’t yet around when Neil Armstrong took his famous lunar stroll or were so young that the event registered only as a vague excitement enthralling the grownups, but the moonshot — and the triumph of the nerds that was the gripping rescue-in-space of the Apollo 13 near-disaster — may have been what convinced our parents that they had better buy us one of those funny little Commodore 64s or Atari 2600s a few years later lest we get left behind as techno-illiterates. Which in turn transformed a generation of kids into computer geeks, which in turn led directly to Ariana Huffington scolding us on her blog, pirated pictures of baby Suri, and Jack Sparrow/Will Turner slash fan fiction.

The point is, by the time Ron Howard got around to making his dramatization of the events of April 1970 with 1995’s Apollo 13, we were all geeky enough so that the science could be the focal point on which the drama of the film turns — “My god, men, we need to make a round CO2 scrubber filter fit into a square slot on the spaceship dashboard!” And so that the heroes could be geeks, guys in short-sleeved pocket-protected dress shirts who talk about amps and escape velocities like they’re matters of life and death … and they are.

And we care. It’s not just that Howard and his wonderful cast make us care as much about the science as he does the people, it’s that the two aspects are inseparable: these are people for whom the science and the adventure and the combination of the two are their everything. The moment in which Gary Sinise’s astronaut is told that he’s off the Apollo 13 mission is devastating: he is crushed. Tom Hanks’ daydream of himself walking on the moon, after it becomes clear that that is not going to happen, is heartbreaking. (There’s sly wit in the characterizations, too: I am endlessly tickled by the umistakably nerdish cadence with which Loren Dean delivers his lines. He plays one of the geeks charged with solving the problem of where to get power for reentry, and it’s not quite a geek accent that he puts on, more an Asperger’s-powered preciseness.)

Hollywood movies so often cast science and scientists as villains, cast research and discovery as “man meddling in things he should be keeping his nose out of,” and take the position that “curiosity killed the cat.” But Apollo 13 makes champions of scientists and celebrates curiosity as an endeavor worth taking on, danger be damned. Hell, the danger might even be half the fun.

[more from me on the film here]

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