NASA reaches its outer limit

A cracked cosmonaut helmet, footsteps in the moon dust, a mysterious flash of light outside a spaceship window — these are some of the images the Weinstein Co. has released from "Apollo 18," a documentary-style sci-fi thriller opening Friday that the studio is marketing as a movie culled from "found footage" from a U.S. space mission.

"In 1972, the United States sent two astronauts on a secret mission to the moon," the trailer says. "Despite decades of denial by NASA and the Department of Defense, classified footage of the mission was leaked to the media."

To recap: Evidence of a vast, 40-year government conspiracy is allegedly about to be exposed by the movie studio that brought you "Piranha 3D" and "Scream 4."

A number of this summer's openly fictional films — Michael Bay's alien robot sequel "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," Terrence Malick's celestial drama "The Tree of Life," the speculative sci-fi indie "Another Earth" — have wrestled with galactic themes and relied on NASA scientists, materials and imagery. Last year, in fact, the U.S. space agency collaborated on nearly 100 documentaries, 35 TV shows and 16 feature films.

But after initially touting "Apollo 18" as one of its upcoming fiction film collaborations, NASA — which, for the record, says the last manned mission to the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972 — has begun to back away from the movie.

"Apollo 18 is not a documentary," said Bert Ulrich, NASA's liaison for multimedia, film and television collaborations. "The film is a work of fiction, and we always knew that. We were minimally involved with this picture. We never even saw a rough cut. The idea of portraying the Apollo 18 mission as authentic is simply a marketing ploy. Perhaps a bit of a 'Blair Witch Project' strategy to generate hype."

With the U.S. space agency at a crossroads — it retired its space shuttle program in July, it's relying on Russian rockets to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station, and it's struggling to find funding and political support for its next mission of sending astronauts to an asteroid in about 15 years — NASA realizes that keeping the public interested in the extraterrestrial is critical to its future.

There was a time when NASA's actual missions — not the "Blair Witch" versions of them — were enough. But without another high-profile NASA project on the runway, working with Hollywood is key.

"It's a wonderful way to reach the public through these huge media means like feature films and television shows, and it can inspire people in an interesting way, and it also can instruct people about what space exploration is all about," Ulrich said.

Sometimes, as with "Apollo 18," attempts at collaboration break down. Another film that the agency refused to work on was the 2000 Warner Bros. bomb "The Red Planet," about making Mars safe for human colonization.

"The science was just so off the wall that eventually we felt, 'You guys go ahead and make your movie.' If there's something that's going to be so misleading to the public that we don't want to participate, then we'll say no," said Ulrich. "The big thing is, we want to make sure we're not misleading the public completely. So if all of a sudden there's a change in what was shot or a change in the storyboard, they're supposed to inform us."

But the boundaries are often expansive. Consider "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," which Paramount Pictures rereleased in Imax theaters on Aug. 26. It proposes an alternative reason for the 1960s space race — that it was triggered by the discovery of an alien spaceship that had crashed on the moon.

Last October, NASA allowed director Michael Bay to film key scenes on one of its shuttle launch pads at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin appears in a cameo scene in the film opposite lead robot Optimus Prime.

"With the shutting down of the shuttle program, [NASA] were very interested in the timing of our movie and showing some of the positive aspects of the space program as they're winding down," said "Transformers" producer Ian Bryce. "Our movie shooting there didn't have anything to do with the shutdown, but they viewed it as being helpful and as maintaining their visibility at this time."

NASA has made some more formal gestures of outreach to Hollywood. In December, the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge hosted a workshop for filmmakers called NASA 101, in which astronauts and scientists addressed producers and screenwriters on subjects such as robotics, astrobiology and Mars.

"We don't know if people are going to go out and write scripts on this stuff, but we felt it was important to tell people this is where we are with space exploration," Ulrich said. In one session about the look, smell and feel of space, astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson described her view from the panoramic shuttle window as akin to sitting "in a bowl full of stars."

"You can't quantify inspiration, but you sure know it when you see it," said Richard Berendzen, an astrophysicist who directs NASA's Washington, D.C., Space Grant Consortium, which funds fellowships in science and math. Berendzen consulted on and narrates portions of "Another Earth," in which an alternative planet, just like our own and peopled with copies of ourselves, suddenly turns up in the sky.

"You saw it back with Apollo. There was a romance and a beauty. If you asked any child at that time, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' they would say astronaut. NASA produces a lot of material, but it maybe is not presented to the public in the most enthralling way. In a movie, those images are a part of a story. Hollywood has resources the public accepts."

As for "Apollo 18," the Weinstein Co. has refused to show it in advance to the media or answer questions about its origins. The studio acquired the screenplay (by newcomer Brian Miller, the winner of a screenwriting contest founded by Russian director-producer Timur Bekmambetov) at the American Film Market in Santa Monica in November and began shooting six weeks later in Vancouver, Canada, under the direction of Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego.

At the time of the script's acquisition, the studio issued a press release that read: "Bekmambetov, hired by Russia to shoot a documentary about the Russian space station, recently came across footage in its space archives that bolsters the idea that an Apollo 18 mission did, in fact, take place, and reveals startling evidence of extra-terrestrial life forms. This actual footage will be part of Apollo 18, a paranormal thriller that will interpolate fact and fiction."

Three hours later, the studio retracted that release and replaced it with a "corrected version without the factual error," which eliminated the reference to Bekmambetov's discovery.

With NASA not on board, the Weinstein Co. enlisted Stanton Friedman, who describes himself as "the flying saucer physicist," as an expert media source on the movie. But even Friedman, who worked as a nuclear physicist in research and development for companies such as TRW and General Motors, was not allowed to view the film.

"The scientific community doesn't say anything about these missions, because, hey, we all know, we're smart guys," Friedman said. "One of the things the secret keepers take advantage of is ego. I'm not saying that this footage exists. I'm saying it's possible that there's a whole classified side to this and that it would make sense. I allow for that possibility."

Though open to the plausibility of aliens, UFOs and many science fiction story lines, there is one Hollywood space trope Friedman rejects. "[Movies] have gotten many people to think NASA's the greatest thing since peanut butter," Friedman said. "I'm not sure they've done a good job of showing the total picture."

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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