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The Last Man on the Moon (2016)

We Porch Sitters

I’ve been thinking about Carter Burke lately. He was the corporate-stooge villain in Aliens, tasked with sneaking a parasite off a deep-space planet and into the hands of his sinister employer back on Earth. Things didn’t go as planned: Burke wound up stuck to the wall of a crumbling colony outpost, with a razor-toothed bug growing in his chest.

It’s rare that movies about space offer this kind of harsh perspective.* Setting aside any judgments about Burke's moral deficiencies, his plight underscores the limits of human understanding when stacked against the universe’s unfathomable vastness and unpredictability. The framework of a lot of mass-market entertainment is bent toward short-sighted allegories based on our own cosmic myopia: we either A) defend Earth from aliens whose ambitions mirror our own imperialist instincts, B) venture to the deepest parts of the galaxy to fight and/or befriend humanoids with human emotions, or C) tiptoe into the Great Beyond, find it to be harsh but culturally barren, and then return to the big, blue safety net called Earth (aka the America of infinity). Even the odd movie involving truly alien extraterrestrials (Starship Troopers, for example) typically devolves into an anti-introspection warfare spectacle.

The Last Man on the Moon takes space exploration seriously, not just from a historical perspective, but as a spiritually noble venture for which we might not yet be equipped. Writer/director Mark Craig’s profile of astronaut Gene Cernan melds documentary footage and re-creations with a unique narrative drive. The result is an entertaining, informative, and philosophically out-there film that feels like a missing early segment from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (set sometime in the thousands of years between apes banging on bones and the advent of zero-G flight attendants)—with the added benefit of being absolutely true.

Cernan might not have the name recognition of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin, but his participation in NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs helped lay the groundwork for them. His attempt at a space walk, for example, fell through when he realized A) there was very little to hang on to outside the small, two-man module, B) the whipping, tendril-like tether between astronaut and craft was not conducive to concentration, nor was C) the moisture build-up inside his helmet, which produced a zero-visibility fog.

And that was just in Earth’s orbit! Cernan also participated in the Apollo 10 lunar fly-by, a dress-rehearsal for the famous moon landing. During Apollo 17, he left mankind’s last boot prints on that gray celestial body, after driving a rover across its surface and discovering orange dust.

Cernan describes his brief stint in space as “standing on God’s front porch”. Indeed, we feel his compulsion to push further into the void, and the heartache of realizing that he would never again be able to look up into the darkness and see his home planet staring back at him. Outer space became a calling just shy of addiction to the astronaut, who espouses the virtue of hard work, optimism, and following one’s dreams throughout the film. Such aspirational focus can come at a cost, though: Cernan’s relentless training and increased notoriety estranged him from his wife and young daughter, who lived in a neighborhood with other space explorers—some of whom weren’t lucky enough to come home.

The NASA training footage and home movies paint a picture of Cernan as a good-natured goofball who loves his family and recognizes his good fortune at having been given opportunities most people will never know. But the draw of space—the chance to catch a glimpse of a greater cosmic truth that he and his colleagues spent decades building towards—proved to be too much for his psyche to handle. When Craig and Cernan tour a decrepit launch pad, the astronaut cuts short the majesty with melancholy, saying he never should have returned. We see him reluctantly accept that he won’t be the one to cross God’s porch and knock on the door; we see him relinquish the mantle of Space Explorer to some adventurous soul in a future generation that will hopefully throw interest, support, and money back into manned expeditions.

One might think that a species imbued with the exploratory spirit would pour as many resources as possible into pushing beyond the boundaries of our relatively microscopic world. In the decades since Cernan’s trip, we’ve made great strides in mapping our small corner of the universe. But like factions of ants skirmishing over a dirt mound next to an iPhone, we focus our collective will on remaining isolated, immediate, and inconsequential.

We’re too busy killing each other over beliefs and resources to unite in such an ethereal cause as interstellar travel; too busy indulging in diversions instead of designing expeditions; indeed, too busy writing about movies about other people going to space to even conceive that we might actually someday go to space. Sure, there are plans to put people on Mars and, no doubt, build a Starbucks in the Sea of Tranquility, but these increasingly seem like missions of desperation rather than enlightenment. As a species, we are less Gene Cernan than Carter Burke: encased in the intractable goo of our own hubris, waiting to die unloved and undiscovered in the middle of nowhere.

*One could argue that not even Aliens did this, as Burke’s cocoon scene was excised from the final film—as was a thematically similar moment in Ridley Scott’s original.

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