Tom Hanks is the narrator and co-writer of this colossal and immersive multimedia family entertainment event or next-level school trip, about Nasa’s historic Apollo moon landings and the planned new Artemis missions. It’s taking place at Lightroom, the innovative new digital art performance venue at London’s Kings Cross – recently the site of Bigger And Closer, an immersive show about David Hockney.
With the audience gathered in the darkened arena-type area, seated on little upholstered double-stools dotted about, Tom Hanks’s likably folksy and nerdily enthusiastic voiceover booms out telling us that this floor space is the size of Mission Control, Houston. Soon, gobsmackingly huge photo images of the moon’s surface and our own planet Earth are flashed up around the walls, also great film footage of the astronauts bouncing and floating, and all with the cathedral vastness and crystal clarity that they have probably always deserved but never before got from TV screens or even movie screens.
In this vein, we get a celebratory potted history of Apollos 11-17 with tasters of the Artemis project, and all with marvellous visuals – though you have to keep rubbernecking to ensure you’re not missing something behind you. The effect is something between video art display at a gallery and the hour-long science-themed films of the early days of Imax.
The passion and idealism of the Apollo missions are inspiring and as always it’s invigorating to be reminded of this extraordinary adventure – and at such scale. The descriptions of the astronauts handling moon rocks composed of matter unchanged over three-and-a-half billion years – a pre-prehistoric time scale – are awe inspiring.
But it must also be said that the school science project tone of the proceedings can be limiting and there is sometimes a kind of ahistorical naivety to them. We see JFK’s famous speech but hear nothing more about the cold war dimension of what is often called the “space race” – and although Yuri Gagarin and Soviet cosmonauts are given a generous namecheck, I would have liked to hear a bit more about how the USSR just seemed to give up this race once the American project got into gear.
And if only to silence the conspiracy weirdos, creeps and bores, it would have been good to hear exactly how and where the video camera was fixed outside the lander to get the footage of Neil Armstrong emerging for the first time.
But the strangest omission is the lack of any mention of Apollo 13, the near-disaster rescued with magnificent ingenuity and resourcefulness by the astronauts and ground crews, which Tom Hanks himself almost single-handedly turned into a key moment of American history with his performance as astronaut Jim Lovell in Ron Howard’s film.
Apollo 13 is, after all, why Tom Hanks is narrating this. Apollo 13 is the reminder of what was at stake in these terrifyingly dangerous missions and Hanks’s voiceover does keep telling us how very dangerous it was. There is a weird moment when a gallery of scientific discovery shows us what each Apollo crew found on the surface: panels showing Apollo 11, Apollo 12, Apollo 14 …. etc. An odd way of conceding one rocket never made it down there. Is Apollo 13 an official embarrassment nowadays? Surely not.
Well, it’s quite a spectacle – and how incredible again to see that rickety landing craft apparently covered in bronze Bacofoil, bearing humanity’s hopes for the future.