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Review: Fly Me To The Moon Almost Practises What It Preaches.

Hollywood loves space travel. Kubrick’s 2001 gave us technological wonder, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 emotionally rendered real events and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar considered it to be the last beacon of hope for a dying species. Space missions, although expensive, resource-sapping and prone to disaster, are frequently depicted as worthwhile because they’re good for morale.

And who benefits most from this morale, but Governments and institutions. However, the filmmakers of the 1970’s paranoid era began to challenge institutional morale with US space drama Capricorn One. In it, America’s first manned mission to Mars seems to go off without a hitch, but in secret, the three-man crew (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and, ahem, OJ Simpson) are taken from the cockpit before the rocket launches because NASA admits it can’t send them safely. The famous space institution, backed by its Government then lies to the world for weeks forcing the astronauts to pretend that they’re in space from a dark room in Nevada before (spoiler) seeming to blow up their rocket. Capricorn One suggests that the morale boost of space travel comes at a human price. It also begs the question, how does one ever prove that astronauts go beyond the outer stretches of Earth’s atmosphere?

We’re pretty certain these days, when the ISS regularly passes by and the Mars Rover sends cute little updates from 140 million miles away. Decades of successful space expeditions (and careful minimising of tragedies like The Challenger disaster) have kept human attention on the stars.

All of this preamble is to say that Fly Me To The Moon is supposed to continue the cinematic trend of promoting space travel. And at first glance it does, playing as a jaunty little historical romantic comedy about the trials of Apollo 11. Yet, there’s another message here poking out between the jokes and romantic interludes – a reminder to not put too much trust in the most powerful institutions on earth, especially those with infinite resources and clever marketeers.

Mixing the playful vibes of Down With Love with a large production budget and Hollywood stars, Fly Me To The Moon stars Scarlett Johansson as high-powered advertising exec Kelly Jones. On Madison Avenue in the mid-1960’s Kelly is willing to spin all kinds of yarns to land the high-value clients. Kelly is so good at her job that she attracts the attention of shady government official Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson) who tells her that he knows all of her secrets which he won’t reveal if she works for a high-profile client in desperate need of her PR services: NASA. Kelly has no choice but to agree. Whisked away to Cape Canaveral Kelly helps market space travel to the masses via product placement and astronaut TV spots. Kelly discovers that working for Richard Nixon isn’t all fun and games, especially when the hardest person to convince that her services are required happens to be NASA launch director Cole Davis (Channing Tatum), who is reeling from the deaths of the Apollo 1 crew under his watchful eye. After Kelly easily sells NASA and the space race to the American people, Moe returns to demand that she stage a top-secret project that looks suspiciously like a fake event.

Directed by Greg Berlanti and using a script from nepo baby Rose Gilroy, Fly Me To The Moon is glossy, witty and nails the period detail in an extremely plush production. Johansson’s star wattage is high. She runs the table, delivering fun accent work in a lively wardrobe. She imbues a potentially hate-able archetype with depth and has great chemistry with Tatum. Johansson even manages to not be outshone by Harrelson or Jim Rash’s hilarious ad director Lance Vespertine, no mean feat. It’s undeniably a fun ride. Yet this could have been so much more. The film is 45 minutes too long and can’t decide if it wants to be a featherlight romance, a clever conspiracy dispeller or an interrogation of the idea that space travel is a waste of resources. And that begs another question: should $100 million have been spent making Fly Me To The Moon? Or has another great American institution – Hollywood – hoodwinked us once again?

Fly Me To The Moon opens in cinemas on 12th July 2024.

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