One small step for man, one giant leap for conspiracy theorists. On July 20, 1969, the lunar module of the Apollo 11 touched down on The Sea of Tranquility, making it the first spaceflight to take humans to the moon.
Or was it? Conspiracy theorists have increasingly contended that the footage was faked, propelled by America’s need to beat the Soviets in the space race and boost public morale. The theory has been debunked time and time again but still continues to pop up in film.
While some movies make it an important plot point, others treat it as a throwaway gag. Take Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, which released two years after the landings. The spy infiltrates a supervillain lair, only to stumble into a room designed to look like the lunar surface, where two men in astronaut costumes are being filmed. The set is replete with fake moon rocks, a moon buggy and a model of the Earth in the background. The scene is never addressed again, but the implications linger.
Several films lean heavily on the popular theory that director Stanley Kubrick filmed the moon landings on a soundstage. The idea sprouted owing to the technical wizardry of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and gained traction after his 1980 horror film The Shining, in which many claim to see references to his deception.
The 2012 documentary Room 237 features fans of the director talking about how they interpret The Shining. Some see it as a metaphor for the Holocaust, others as an acknowledgement of Native American genocide. Author Jay Weidner, however, sees it as Kubrick’s way of telling the world he had faked the moon landings, using 2001: A Space Odyssey as a research and development project beforehand. The stress and eventual mental breakdown of Jack (Jack Nicholson) in the film is supposedly meant to mirror the pressure Kubrick was under from the US government. Weidner points to several ‘clues’ to support his theory, such as the Apollo 11 sweater than Danny (Danny Lloyd) wears.
Some are more farfetched – Weidner says room 237, which Danny isn’t permitted to enter, should be read as a reference to the Earth’s mean distance from the moon (237,000 miles). Or as the number of the soundstage where Kubrick allegedly shot the fake footage. He’s confident that the words ‘ROOM NO’ on the keycard can only be rearranged to spell ‘MOON’ and not, say, moron.
Kubrick, albeit an animated one, also briefly appears in Minions (2015), where he is interrupted while filming the moon landings on set.
Comedy film Moonwalkers (2015) also namedrops 2001: A Space Odyssey, which the CIA thinks “doesn’t make a bit of sense, but looks terrific”. Impressed by the film, they plan to ask Kubrick to prepare fake footage of the landing ahead of time, just in case the real one doesn’t work out. However, a case of mistaken identity leads to a down-on-his-luck band manager (Rupert Grint) and his roommate (Robert Sheehan) being hired for the job instead. The roommate mangles the ‘one small step’ line, calls his fellow ‘astronaut’ by the wrong name and flubs the planting of the American flag. By the end of the film, viewers still don’t know if the footage being telecast is from the fake shoot or if we really have made it to the moon.
The ridiculousness of the conspiracy theory lends itself well to the mockumentary format. Dark Side of the Moon (2002) hooks you in with an intriguing question – how did Kubrick come to acquire the million-dollar, one-of-its-kind, advanced lens he needed to shoot Barry Lyndon (1975)? Did NASA, which had owned and fiercely guarded it until then, hand it over as compensation for certain services rendered years earlier? Say, for falsifying the moon landing footage?
The mockumentary splices together out-of-context file footage with scripted interviews by actors and even Kubrick’s actual wife, Christiane, to make a scarily convincing argument. Fans of the director, however, will be quick to catch on – many of the ‘interviewees’ are named after the characters in his films.
The conspiracy gets the found footage treatment in Operation Avalanche (2016). Two CIA agents undercover at NASA discover that the agency is only capable of sending Apollo 11 into space, not landing it on the moon. They decide to fake the footage, even visiting the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey to study how Kubrick made his depiction of space so realistic. Operation Avalanche is the only film on this list to put some thought into what such an elaborate hoax would involve – from how data transmitted to mission control would have to be manipulated to the technical aspects of the visual fakery.
In some films, details of the moon landing are purposefully supressed from the public to further an agenda. In the blight-ravaged late 21st century world of Interstellar (2014), government textbooks are reprinted to assert that the moon landing was a lie pushed to bankrupt the Soviets. Why teach schoolchildren that? As a cautionary tale against the ‘excesses’ of the 20th century, which included funding for space exploration programmes. Secondly, to actively discourage them from looking for ways to leave the dying planet by painting the idea of space travel as unfeasible.
An early scene in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) sees US president John F Kennedy push for manned missions to the moon so NASA can investigate the alien life there. The Apollo 11 flight is a success and the astronauts find the wreck of a Cybertronian spacecraft, but of course the public never finds out.