Monday, 16 March 2015

Marooned (1969)

Marooned is one of those big-budget movies that seem to have everything going for them but still manage to fail at the box office. In 1969 space exploration was generating unprecedented interest and a science fiction movie dealing directly with the US space program must have seemed like a surefire winner.

The Ironman One spacecraft is about to be launched. The three astronauts on board are to spend the next seven months living and working in the Saturn IV space station. Jim Pruett (Richard Crenna) is the mission commander, Buzz Lloyd (Gene Hackman) is the pilot and Clayton Stone (James Franciscus) is the science specialist. The launch goes off without a hitch. After five months the astronauts are showing signs of fatigue so the head of the manned space program, Charles Keith (Gregory Peck) decides to bring them down. It’s no big deal. The mission has been a success and has helped to pave the way for more ambitious future missions. Everyone is pleased and the astronauts are looking forward to seeing their families. 

And then disaster strikes. The retro rockets fail to fire. A second attempt is made on the next orbit, again unsuccessfully. On the ground technicians have been working feverishly to find some reason for the failure but they can find no explanation whatsoever.

Without the retro rockets there is no way of slowing down the spacecraft for re-entry. The three astronauts are doomed to remain in Earth orbit until the orbit finally decays (in about seven years’ time) and the spacecraft falls to Earth as a fiery meteor. The astronauts will however not have to worry about that. They will be dead long before. In fact they have enough air for only another 42 hours.

Charles Keith is shaken but he has always understood the risks of space exploration and he knows that the three men in Ironman One understood those risks just as clearly. Sometimes progress has to paid for and sometimes the price is high.

Chief Astronaut Ted Dougherty (David Janssen) does not see it that way. Those three men are still alive and they cannot be allowed to die without some effort being made to rescue them. The Russians are willing to help but unfortunately their only available spacecraft is in the wrong orbit and cannot reach the men in Ironman One. Dougherty however is not giving up.

Keith tries patiently to explain that a rescue mission would take weeks to organise. Dougherty believes it could be done in 42 hours. The Air Force agrees that it would be extremely difficult but they think it could be done. There is no spacecraft available but the Air Force has an experimental craft that could be modified to do the job. Keith is finally convinced and then throws himself wholeheartedly into the rescue effort. It’s a race against time, and also a race against the weather with a hurricane heading for the Florida coast. Can the rescue mission be launched before the hurricane hits?

The major criticisms directed at this movie are that it is too slow and too dull. This is not entirely fair and seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what director John Sturges was trying to do. Sturges was something of a specialist in thrillers but his thrillers tended to be cerebral and character-driven and ideas-driven rather than just shoot ’em ups with lots of explosions. Sturges had directed the mega-hits The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven as well as the very underrated The Satan Bug and Ice Station Zebra and he would go on to helm one of the best action thrillers of the 70s, The Eagle Has Landed. This was a guy who knew what he was doing. He wanted to make a movie that would rely on tension rather than explosions and his movies tended to be fairly long. He liked the slow burn approach.

Marooned certainly has plenty of tension and Sturges maintains that tension very effectively. 

It has also been criticised for the one-dimensionality of the characters but again I disagree. We don’t learn very much about the lives of the characters although we know that all three astronauts are married and have children. We don’t need to know details. What Sturges is interested in is how these men handle the very stressful situation they’re in, and how each of them responds differently. There’s a nice little scene where the astronauts are discussing a psychologist who tested them during their training. One of his tests was to show each man a blank sheet of paper and ask them what they saw. Pruett saw a blank sheet of paper. He’s not an imaginative guy and he just likes to get on with doing stuff. Stone saw a blank sheet of paper as well but he explains that it wasn’t a lack of imagination - it was a commitment to truth. Stone is the kind of guy who accepts reality, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. Lloyd on the other hand saw a field covered in snow and he saw the growing wheat beneath the snow and he saw the snow melt. Lloyd is a man who has a great deal of imagination, which can be an advantage but it can also be a liability. He has perhaps too much imagination. The scene gives us crucial insights into what makes the three men tick and it does it economically.

Crenna, Hackman and Franciscus handle their roles well without being tempted into overacting. Gregory Peck plays a guy who has had to take responsibility for the lives of the men under his command and to do that he has to judge situations coldly and clinically. It’s not that he has no motions but making decisions based on emotions can cost people’s lives so he represses those emotions. It’s a nicely understated performance by Peck and he’s utterly believable and he isn’t concerned if the character comes across as being not overly sympathetic. David Janssen does quite well also although in a less demanding  role.

The special effects are of their time but they work pretty well. This movie was probably unlucky in coming out a year after Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards for science fiction special effects. The miniatures work in Marooned is very competent but not in the same league as the effects in 2001.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but the anamorphic transfer is acceptable.

Marooned does what it set out to do quite effectively. It’s closer in feel to a movie like Morning Departure (the classic movie about men trapped in a doomed submarine) than it is to Star Wars. If you accept Marooned on its own terms it’s a tense and effective movie. Recommended.

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