Marooned/Space Travelers (1969) ***½
Once 2001: A Space Odyssey made the world safe for big-budget science fiction movies again, it was only a matter of time before somebody took a chance on something that had been out of favor for even longer— a completely serious sci-fi film set only a short while into the future. From one angle at least, the auspices looked pretty good. Unlike the early-to-mid-50’s, the late 60’s and early 70’s were a period of triumph for the American space program, and audiences might find it inspirational to watch a dramatization of the risks men like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were facing on their route to the evening news and thence to immortality. Then again, movies and TV alike had long been in the habit of taking a longer, more expansive view of the future, and of the universe it might reveal to us. A rigorously realistic space-flight movie might look prosaic and passé to people who had already seen “Star Trek” and Planet of the Apes. Such was the gamble taken by producers Frank Capra Jr. and M. J. Frankovich when they put together Marooned for Columbia Pictures in 1969, for release just a few months after Apollo 11’s successful journey to the moon and back. The film’s subject matter, however, had more in common with the disastrous voyage of the infelicitously numbered Apollo 13 two years later.
No specific date is ever given, but the presence of a functioning, if primitive, space station in Earth’s orbit may be taken to imply a setting in the early 1970’s, given the rate of advancement in space-flight technique and technology that was being assumed at the time. On the launch pad at Cape Kennedy is Ironman 1, an Apollo-derived spacecraft outfitted for docking with the new Saturn 4B orbital laboratory. Mission commander Jim Pruett (Richard Crenna, of Death Ship and The Evil), pilot Buzz Lloyd (Young Frankenstein’s Gene Hackman), and psychologist Clayton Stone (James Franciscus, from Great White and The Valley of Gwangi) are to spend the next seven months aboard that space station, studying the effects of extended exposure to extraterrestrial conditions upon their own minds and bodies. The road to the stars is a long one, you know, and so far as anyone can tell, there isn’t a single Stuckey’s anywhere along it. The astronauts’ daily activities consequently amount to little more than busy-work, with the real action being in the video and audio logs that Pruett, Lloyd, and Stone beam down to Houston every day.
About five and a half months into the mission, the space agency’s scientists can detect a degradation in the men’s physical and psychological fitness serious enough to be potentially dangerous if it progresses any further, and NASA chief Charles Keith (Gregory Peck, from Cape Fear and On the Beach) orders a halt to the exercise. Pruett’s team has already answered the main question— how long can a man spend in space under current conditions before he starts to crack up?— and nothing they could learn in the remaining six weeks of the original schedule would be worth the heightened risk to their safety. The three astronauts shut down the Saturn 4B, and board Ironman 1 for the trip home. Things seem to be going well at first (the men may have become a bit fumble-fingered and distractible, but they can still manage their ship just fine), but the automatic launch sequence fails when the time comes to engage the main thruster for reentry. Manual ignition doesn’t work either, and there isn’t enough fuel left in the maneuvering rockets to enable them to be used as a backup. And while the space station’s life-support system may be able to recycle its air indefinitely, Ironman 1 has just enough oxygen onboard to last three men approximately two days. That leaves just over 42 hours by the time the thruster malfunction arises, so Keith and his people down in Houston had better come up with something quick.
There are a few different avenues to be explored. Pruett’s inclination is to go outside and try to fix the engine himself. The trouble with that plan is that the human body uses a great deal more oxygen when active than it does at rest. If Pruett can’t isolate the malfunction, or if the problem turns out to be something he can’t fix, then all he’ll have accomplished will be to turn a 42-hour air supply into something more like 25 or 30. Keith’s lab at mission control has an exact duplicate of Ironman 1’s propulsion system set up, so what he’d like to do is to mess with it part by part until his staff finds something that makes it stop working in exactly the same way. It’s the by-the-book approach for a reason, but the downside is that it’s a matter of trial and error. If the first few tinkers turn up something, then fine, but an Apollo orbiter’s drive train has an awful lot of components, and finding the right one could take a hell of a lot longer than 42 hours. Then there’s the possibility of a rescue mission. That’s the angle of attack favored by NASA’s top astronaut, Colonel Ted Dougherty (David Janssen, from Fer-de-Lance and Cult of the Cobra), but Keith initially dismisses it as a pipe dream. The only transatmospheric vehicle on hand at the moment is the XRV-36, an experimental lifting-body craft which has never flown before. Furthermore, the XRV’s cabin was built with only two crewmen in mind, and a rescue mission would require accommodations for at least four. And if all of NASA’s usual mission-prep protocols— which, again, are in place for a reason— were followed, the turnaround time would be closer to 42 days than to 42 hours. So far as Keith can see, the only realistic course of action is to keep plugging away at the engine mockup in the lab, and hope for the best while preparing for the worst. The latter includes breaking the news to the astronauts’ wives— Celia Pruett (Lee Grant, from Valley of the Dolls and The Swarm), Betty Lloyd (Mariette Hartley, of Earth II and The Return of Count Yorga), and Teresa Stone (Nancy Kovack, from Diary of a Madman and Jason and the Argonauts)— that there’s an excellent chance the men won’t be coming home this time. Then a call from the president changes things a bit. He wants a rescue mission, and he’ll see to it that Keith gets whatever he needs to make it happen. Of course, not even the leader of the free world can put more time on the clock, nor can he convince that hurricane that just blew up off the coast of Cuba to move out to sea instead of heading north to Cape Kennedy.
As gambles go, the return on Marooned was decidedly mixed. Critics were impressed, and the film garnered several nominations at academy award time. Deservedly, it actually won the Oscar for visual effects. But a gamble involving money (about $8 million worth of it in this case) can’t really be said to pay off unless it pays off, and Marooned did nothing of the kind. The verdict among the ticket-buying public seemed to be that Marooned was maybe just a little bit boring, what with its sitting around as near to motionless as possible in spaceship cockpits and its waiting for the wind speed at Cape Kennedy to drop below 50 knots. At least so far as the movies are concerned, science fiction fans are to a great extent action fans, whereas Marooned is instead a very methodically paced drama. It is more about facing and coming to terms with seemingly inescapable death than it is about cheating it, and its idea of heroism has more to do with stoic self-sacrifice and passivity in the face of stress than it does with taking bulls by the horns and going down fighting. On its own terms, I’d call it a damn fine film, but accepting its terms does not come naturally to me. Evidently it didn’t come naturally to most of the people who went to see it in 1969, either. The exact circumstances are obscure to me, but apparently Columbia took such a bath on this movie that they never so much as bothered to renew the copyright on it after the law was revised in 1973, and Marooned had lapsed into the public domain by 1991. That was the year it was picked up by Film Ventures International, once an important independent production company (Grizzly was an FVI picture, for example), but by then little more than a TV syndicator and a home video distributor dealing mainly in orphaned and public-domain properties, which they’d re-score and re-edit just enough to re-copyright them under their own name. The folks at FVI must have thought Marooned was boring, too, because they chewed the hell out of it in an attempt to pick up the pace, but actually achieved nothing more than to riddle the movie with plot holes. Perversely enough, though, Space Travelers (as the FVI remix was called) probably got more attention than the original Marooned ever did, for it was one of the movies the company licensed for use in an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” And thus it was that Joel and the ‘Bots got the chance to make fun of an Oscar-winning film…