I feel very fortunate to have caught the special IMAX session of this extraordinary documentary, celebrating the landmark achievement of the Apollo 11 moon launch fifty years ago. There’s nothing like an immersive IMAX experience, watching it at home would never have had the same impact.
Not to diminish historical dramas, but there’s something special about watching the footage of an incredible moment in human history knowing that what you’re seeing onscreen is what really happened in real life (nope, moon landing conspiracy theories aren’t my cuppa). The most remarkable aspect of Apollo 11 is the way it dispenses with the usual documentary tools like narration, talking heads or the participants reminiscing about the past event from the present-day perspective. The film instead wants you to experience the trip to the moon and back as it happened, relying on the archival footage (some of it only released from the National Archives recently), audio tracks, simple info graphics, and the hypnotic score. The closest thing to narration is the occasional commentary from the contemporary news broadcasts that adds to the historic feel and helpfully simplifies the details for the general public.
Some of that old colour footage is so pristine, bright and crisp it could pass for a modern-day reconstruction. The images of the lift-off in particular are absolutely magnificent and awe-inspiring, but just as fascinating are the shots of the crowds who came to see the launch in their fabulous late-60s clothes and funky sunglasses. The documentary briefly sketches in the backstories of the three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, with still photographs, but it ultimately chooses to focus on the monumental team effort rather than individuals.
There are of course no surprises to the story everyone knows ended well, and the emotional reactions of the real-life people are muted compared to the dramatic re-creations in Hollywood movies, but the film still generates an immense amount of suspense thanks to the excellent editing and use of music. Though space exploration was very much the arena of the Cold War competition between USA and Soviet Union, it’s impossible not to be moved and feel proud of what the humankind has accomplished here. It makes you wish you could be around to see the next big step into space.
Our special IMAX screening was hosted by a scientist (a very photogenic, charming and well-spoken scientist too), who gave a small introduction before the film and held a short Q&A session after. Rather adorably, many of the questions came from the little kids in the audience, including an inevitable one about going to the toilet in space.