Like many a boomer child, Tom Hanks was smitten with the Apollo moon landings; but Tom Hanks being Tom Hanks, he never became unsmitten. The most beloved man in Hollywood has been nurturing a lunar side hustle for some time now: as well as starring in the film ‘Apollo 13’, he’s been involved in lower-key works, producing the HBO miniseries ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ and co-writing the IMAX film ‘Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D’.
Staged in Kings Cross’s new, projection-based performance space Lightroom, ‘The Moonwalkers’ is essentially a documentary with bells on, a collaboration between Hanks and the venue, with a script co-written by the actor and Christopher Riley. It is, naturally, narrated by Hanks.
Although it makes a point of looking forward to next year’s Artemis mission – the first manned flight to the moon since 1972 – ‘The Moonwalkers’ is a homage to both the Apollo landings and the wonder the Apollo landings instilled in the world.
Starting with JFK’s rousing ‘we choose to go to the Moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard’ speech, it’s upbeat and America-centric, but well-judged. The main action and most spectacular visuals are projected on the room’s huge front wall, but the side walls cram in smaller details: the female mathematicians – many of them Black – who made the project possible are duly credited, which they certainly weren’t when I was young (or at the time of the landings,for that matter).
There’s no contextualising talk of the space race or Cold War, but that’s okay: it’s not a show about the nuts and bolts or geopolitical implications of the landings, but rather the fact that they happened at all and how astonishing that was to the generation watching at home on TV. Narrating, Hanks is informal and friendly: this isn’t a booming list of America’s achievements, but rather a genuine attempt to convey how much this meant to his generation at one point.
Hanks is as good as you’d hope, then, but really ‘The Moonwalkers’ is all about experiencing the archive footage and photos on a colossal scale. Not every moment is going to hold everyone equally riveted - we’d probably have gone to the moon a lot more if we as a species hadn’t become essentially blasé about going there. But there are some phenomenal moments: the close-up of Apollo 11 blasting off is a jaw-dropping spectacle and it’s mind-blowing how primitive the shuttle looks. It really does feel like ancient magic.
And the bit in which the entire room is given over to a high-definition photo of the lunar landscape with a view of the Earth is incredibly moving - millions of words have already been expended explaining why, but experiencing it at something like realistic scale and perspective rams home every truism about looking at our lonely, fragile blue orb.
You won’t learn anything factually that you wouldn’t from a primary school book about space, and if you stripped away the massive screens and stonking sound system it would clearly lose an enormous amount. But that’s fine because it’s designed to be shown in the Lightroom, not late night on Channel 5. It’s about feelings first and facts second. And at its best it lets us experience Tom Hanks’s awe at man’s struggle for the stars – and that is a lot of awe.