austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

My supersonic ship's at your disposal if you feel so inclined, well all right

The Reluctant Astronaut is on Netflix Instant and can, for subscribers, be watched within seconds of deciding one wants to watch it. I decided so recently.

This movie is ideally watched, I think, when you are nine years old, wildly enthusiastic about anything that has a space capsule in it, and maybe are staying indoors because it's a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1969. There's a fair amount of it that's meant to be funny but that wears pretty thin if you've seen jokes before.

Don Knotts stars as a family playground ride operator, running the kiddie spaceship ride, whose pushy, overbearing father gets him a job at NASA and wants to know why he isn't flying when he's been there for days. I didn't realize there was a Buzz Aldrin biography made this far back. But through the wonders of That Wacky Space Program Bureaucratese what Knotts's character doesn't know until he gets there is he's been hired as a janitor. He never does manage to tell his father.

Anyway, Knotts's character tries giving his father (and friends) a tour, they insist on meddling with the real hardware, Knotts goes on an accidental rocket-sled flight and he gets fired. Meanwhile, with reports that the Soviets are proving their new fully-automated perfectly- safe capsule by sending up a dentist, NASA scrambles to find themselves the perfect average-naut for their new fully-automated perfectly-safe capsule. Leslie Neilsen's character, an astronaut who really looks and acts the part, had befriended Knotts's earlier and suggests him for the mission, which they're throwing together in 36 hours to beat the cosmo-dentist to the punch.

Will he be found? Will he be launched despite his crippling fear of heights? Will he be dangling outside the command module from the open door while the countdown is in its final seconds? Will the zaniness of zero-gravity make Knotts's character accidentally unspool the reel-to-reel tape with the reentry sequence on it? [1] Will our intrepid average-naut re-spool it while mixing it with peanut butter and crackers for some reason? Will the kiddie-ride spiel turn out to be just perfect for timing the most on-target reentry in history? [2] Are you nine years old, wildly enthusiastic to watch anything with a space capsule in it, and trying to pass a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1969?

[1] Incidentally apparently proving the capsule was not ready for prime time, I'd think, although that goes unmentioned.

[2] Based on sci.space.history discussions of the film, it's entirely the landing scene that people remember it for.

There's generous use of stock footage here, so there's some fun to be had watching how many of the shots don't even vaguely match up (and how the space capsule has a Tardis-like spaciousness compared to the Apollo nosecone it's on).

And there's a fair amount of rocket-flight fan service, including several scenes of Don Knotts tromping around Kennedy while the SA-500F was on the launchpad. I imagine this must give us a way of dating when that filming was done, although I don't know when it was at launch complex 39-A (and, I assume, 39-B, though I don't actually know what its service life was like).

Anyway, Knotts's personal charm goes far, and Neilsen's carries some of the rest of the way, but overall ... boy, I'd have loved this when I was nine years old, but seeing it again might spoil fond memories for those who were nine when they saw it.

Trivia: The word ``boondoggle'' came into existence in the late 1920s; the first published uses refer to the plaited lanyards created by Boy Scouts particularly at the 1929 World Jamboree of Scouts in England, one of which was presented to the Prince of Wales, and another which was presented to Lord Baden-Powell. Source: Webster's Dictionary of Word Origins, Editor Frederick C Mish.

Currently Reading: The Apollo Guidance Computer: Architecture and Operation, Frank O'Brien.

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