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18 August 2008

"For All Maggotkind, or, Swatted Dreams:
A Review of Fly Me to the Moon"

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Ben Stassen

Written by Domonic Paris

Starring Buzz Aldrin and the voices of Trevor Gagnon, Philip Bolden, David Gore, Christopher Lloyd, Kelly Ripa, Tim Curry, Adrienne Barbeau, Nicolette Sheridan, Robert Patrick,and Ed Begley, Jr.

Official site: nWave Pictures presents Fly Me To The Moon

Perhaps you are wondering why I didn't choose to review that other animated science fiction film opening this weekend, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008), which will certainly be much more appealing to typical filmgoers than Fly Me to the Moon. Unfortunately, my preferences in movies do not always coincide with those of typical filmgoers. In particular, I have grown less and less interested in fantasies of space travel, stirring adventures featuring heroes who behave more or less as they would behave in the familiar terrestrial realms where the templates for their sagas were originally situated. Instead, I am increasingly fascinated by films which focus on the realities of space travel, slow-moving dramas with stolid protagonists in bulky spacesuits who cautiously confront the unprecedentedly strange and lethal environment of outer space with clumsy, meticulous care. And suggesting that future advances in technology will render such attire, and such attitudes, obsolete simply reveals, I would argue, a willful failure to recognize the dangers that space travel will inevitably involve. Thus, I was attracted to Fly Me to the Moon because it promised to provide, among other things, an accurate account of the 1969 flight of Apollo 11 to the surface of the Moon, arguably the most significant achievement in the history of humanity.

However, realistic accounts of space travel have rarely been box-office successes, and a previous effort to chronicle the first lunar mission, Apollo 11 (1996), is a long-forgotten television movie. Knowing these things, the makers of Fly Me to the Moon, to draw in more of those typical filmgoers, were obliged to add an element of outrageous fantasy to their story: namely, three anthropomorphic flies who enterprisingly stow away on the Apollo 11 flight to face challenges more entertainingly colorful than the stoic efforts of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin to follow their detailed orders to achieve a landing on the Moon and return to Earth. The result is an oddly bifurcated film, almost at war with itself: in part it is a brilliantly animated, awe-inspiring depiction of the entire flight of Apollo 11 from liftoff to descent, making effective use of 3D effects to impressively show every stage of the complex dance of detaching and reuniting various mission components as well as breathtaking images of the Earth and Moon as observed from space. Yet all of these scenes are juxtaposed with a rather ordinary kid's cartoon about adorable little flies and their amusing antics.

Examining these two stories reveals the sharp contrast between the novel narrative elements essential to realistic stories about space travel and the time-honored narrative elements that humans have always preferred. To be successful, space travelers must follow voluminous scripts, with each step rehearsed innumerable times so as to become second nature; but we prefer free-spirited heroes like the young flies Nat (Trevor Gagnon), I.Q. (Philip Bolden), and Scooter (David Gore) who spontaneously decide to go on an "adventure" into space with little preparation and triumph by means of inspired improvisation and sheer determination. Space travelers must constantly depend upon a small army of ground controllers to constantly monitor all aspects of the flight and provide advice and guidance as needed; but we prefer heroes like these flies who can do everything, from building their own spacesuits to repairing a loose connection, all by themselves. Space travelers must confront, as their main opposition, the cold, daunting vacuum of space, which can at any moment prove deadly to them; but we prefer heroes like these flies who are primarily threatened by conventional, detestable villains, here some Russian flies in Florida who attempt to disrupt the astronauts' descent.

More broadly, because their exploits may not seem dramatic in traditional ways, space travelers must appeal to audiences by projecting an aura of blandness and posturing as representatives of an entire country, or the entire human race, venturing into space in order to achieve some enormously important goal, such as protecting the United States from foreign domination, exploring unknown realms, gaining new knowledge, or helping to establish new homes for humanity. This was, after all, the point of Neil Armstrong's first words upon stepping onto the lunar surface, repeated in this film: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for all mankind." But we prefer heroes like these flies with distinctive idiosyncracies — brave Nat, brainy I.Q., voracious Scooter — who do things for more personal reasons. Here, although the flies are first observed constructing a model spaceship in a junkyard, suggesting some special interest in space flight, they never say anything about such an interest. Instead, the three flies apparently decide to travel into space simply to follow their mantra of their grandfather (Christopher Lloyd) — "If it ain't an adventure, it ain't worth doing" — and they choose to stow away on a spacecraft only because they happen to live near Cape Canaveral, rather than a train station or a submarine base that might have offered them an equally suitable "adventure"; there is also the brief suggestion that the flies mainly go into space to impress two female flies who are going on dates with some obnoxious bullies. In sum, the story of Nat. I.Q., and Scooter might have seemed more congruent with that of Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin if the flies had avowedly journeyed into space for all maggotkind; instead, they are simply going on a joy ride.

Because the film's two stories are so different, the protagonists of each story must remain oddly distant from each other. That is, told that filmmakers were adding talking flies to the crew of Apollo 11, one would expect scenes in which the astronauts and the flies meet each other, have conversations, work together, and become friends; but in Fly Me to the Moon, the astronauts and the flies barely interact at all. Advised of the flies' presence by NASA ground controllers, they do as instructed and use a "numbing spray" to anesthetize them and briefly imprison them in a test tube before they can escape; when he steps on the Moon, Armstrong notices Nat inside his helmet but elects to say nothing about it to NASA; and when one astronaut is about to spray them a second time, Armstrong tells him to leave them alone because "they are American flies." But other than one scene when both astronauts and flies salute the American flag erected on the Moon, that is all the bonding that occurs in the movie. Indeed, the astronauts function for the most part merely as objects in the background of the flies' story, drawn so similarly as to often make it difficult to discern which astronaut is which.

The severe disconnect between the films' discordant narratives comes to a head in its bizarre conclusion: Buzz Aldrin himself appears to first explain that in fact there were no flies, and could not possibly have been any flies, on board the Apollo 11 mission, effectively denouncing the entire film as a silly fraud. He then shifts gears to celebrate all those who have sought "new frontiers" and to encourage everyone to "reach for the stars," precisely the sort of rhetoric supporting space travel that the film has otherwise lacked. Finally, the three flies briefly return to wonder what that was all about, since such sentiments had certainly never occurred to them before, during, or after their own flight.

There is also a significant disconnect between the two threads of the flies' adventure: the main story of the three spacefaring flies, which is palatable enough on its own terms, and the subplot about the sinister Russian flies and the efforts to thwart their evil plans, which is an annoying contrivance clearly developed solely to extend the length of the film. In the first place, while there is an attractively multiethnic aura about the miniature society of the three flies, the chief Russian villains, Poopchev (Ed Begley, Jr.) in Russia and Yegor (Tim Curry) in Florida, recall Bullwinkle's Boris Badenov and Fearless Leader more than any actual Russians I am aware of. As if fearful that they might be accused of being anti-Russian (even though that attitude may seem more defensible now in light of recent events that no one could have anticipated), the filmmakers also introduce a sympathetic Russian character, Nadia (Nicolette Sheridan), Grandpa McFly's old flame and future ally. Yet even granted that one should not expect impeccable narrative logic in an animated film for children, the ways that these characters are shoehorned into the plot represent obvious acts of desperation. For if the Russian flies had wanted to stop the Apollo 11 mission, why didn't they start making plans until after the astronauts had been launched, and why would they seek to sabotage the flight's descent (after their triumphal landing) instead of the flight's launch? Then we are asked to believe that Nadia, observing three tiny flies on a television screen, could instantly recognize that they were Amos McFly's grandchildren and would immediately resolve to visit him in Florida to warn him that his grandchildren were in danger. And the battle against Yegor and his henchmen at the Cape Canaveral mission control center is implausibly choreographed so as to allow every single one of the film's supporting characters — even the maggots! — precisely one moment of heroism. In sum, if the filmmakers had felt a genuine need to include Russian villains in their story, they should have made them additional stowaways on the Apollo 11 mission, to be discovered and overcome by our three heroes, instead of terrestrial diversions defeated by the flies' earthbound surrogates.

Even if this film's parts do not exactly fit together well, there are still many moments to appreciate. I liked the fact that the film's flashbacks — of Grandpa McFly flying with Amelia Earhart in the 1930s and almost flying into space with a monkey in 1961 — were animated in black and white, providing a nicely antiquated atmosphere. It was enjoyable to note that Ben, the NASA worker who gives the flies a ride to the Apollo 11 launch site, had a kitchen which included an authentically hideous pea-green refrigerator and drove a car with the license plate "FMTT MOON." As is virtually de rigueur in space travel films, there are references to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) — most conspicuously the use of the "Blue Danube Waltz" to accompany scenes of the flies experiencing weightlessness, but there is also the scene of a pencil floating in space and the sound of breathing we hear when Armstrong dons his spacesuit to walk on the lunar surface. There are touches of verbal humor — Nat's mother (Kelly Ripa) telling her maggots to "stop playing with your grease" and exclaiming "My Lord of the Flies!" — and visual humor — a version of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa on Grandpa's wall, apparently in the process of swatting a fly (but was that sign in mission control — "AUTHORIZED PERSONAL ONLY" — a joke, or an actual spelling error?). For those in search of social significance, the film shares with Wall?E (2008) [review here] an anti-obesity theme, as the corpulent Scooter finally resolves to go on a diet and lose some weight. And I found the film's uses of 3D effects were more subdued, less in-your-face, than those of Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008) [review here], making the scenes more appealing, and several evocative images of dragonflies, spiders, and spacecraft flying outside the screen suggest again that 3D movies might be best suited for stories where gravity is not an issue.

Finally, in an era when films featuring people in spacesuits are rather rare, one might interpret the appearance of Fly Me to the Moon as a heartening harbinger of renewed interest in space travel as it has occurred and will occur, the next small step being the upcoming Orion spacecraft, described as "Apollo on steroids." Yet the observed disparity between the stories of the human astronauts and the insect astronauts can also be interpreted as a criticism of such initiatives. After all, the words of Buzz Aldrin notwithstanding, he and his colleagues in this film do not present much of a case for space travel: in defiance of what actually happened, these astronauts do not receive the validation of an enthusiastic phone call from President Richard Nixon, and they are not seen setting up scientific equipment or gathering moon rocks to bring to Earth for scientific analysis. In a way, their historic flight now seems as pointless as the flies' flight, which earns them only a ticker-tape parade and hugs from their mothers and brings no substantive benefits to their community of flies. And so, in an era when even films about actual space flights can project only half-hearted support for such endeavors, it is difficult to imagine substantive progress in the near future toward humanity's ancient dream of conquering space. Perhaps Nat's mother was right: "Dreamers get swatted." And perhaps I would now be a happier man if I had spent my weekend watching and writing about the blissfully insignificant Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

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