WHEN & WHO?
‘… a stirring and moving homage to the past and future of lunar exploration’
At the end of the 1995 feature film Apollo 13, Tom Hanks, playing astronaut Jim Lovell, speaks over a slow-motion scene of himself and his fellow cast-mates recreating the welcome of the returning voyagers to the USS Iwo Jima. ‘I look up at the moon and wonder,’ Hanks says in his familiarly understated but reassuring tone as the music of James Horner swells in the background, ‘when will we be going back and who will that be?’
Although, in reality, four more missions would reach the lunar surface between the ‘successful failure’ and December of 1972; when Apollo 13 came to theatres it had been twenty-three years since that last moon landing, and now half a century on from that last poignant step for mankind, the question posed in that final monologue is being answered.
In the next 3 years, NASA will launch a manned mission to the surface of the moon, comprising of Commander Reid Wiseman, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialist Christina Koch from NASA, with mission specialist Jeremy Hansen from the Canadian Space Agency, ushering in perhaps the next chapter of human discovery.
This event, the irrepressible enthusiasm of Hanks for space exploration, and a chance meeting with the CEO of Lightroom London, Richard Slaney presented a unique opportunity to not only celebrate the birth, (and act as a reminder) of the Artemis Program but to also look back at those small steps, and giant leaps that had come before. The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks which opened on 6 December 2023 at the Lightroom is a stirring and moving homage to the past and future of lunar exploration.
I can’t pretend to be a space geek, but I am a space fan, and so when I received an invitation from the thoughtful and charming, Alysa Beckner from the Borkowski publicity team to attend an early screening the day before opening to the public, I did not even contemplate passing up the opportunity. I chose to go.
Alysa and her team greeted everyone who entered with a generous smile, a branded tote bag with the specially produced guide to the show, and directed us to where we could find refreshments. The publicity team deserve a round of applause for their smooth handling of the event, and for prioritising guests they believed would genuinely enjoy the performance.
Walking into the foyer of the Lightroom, a visitor is immediately stuck by the elegant, but modern design of your surroundings, which harmonises with an almost old-time Hollywood glamour just noticeable in the outer facade and bold red lettering above the door. A gold, statement wall adorned with mission patches strikes you through a cloud of intricately constructed light-bulbs, fashioned with what appears to be crepe so as to conjure a stillness and tranquility. These float over the smooth outline of the central staircase which curls down to a space used for merchandise, a small selection of which, including the spectacular prints of some of the most iconic lunar photography, is available on the ground floor. To the left of the door is a well-stocked bar that also serves excellent coffee and cakes.
The foyer is a relaxing place, with a warm, comforting colour-palate to rest and have a snack, and look out at the cold grey city. The Lightroom is situated 8 minutes away from Kings Cross and rests at the edge of a swanky array of chic restaurants, shops and café’s called the Coal Yard, that could easily be included in a visit.
Like many venues that offer immersive experiences, each room transitions you from the real world outside the ample glass windows to a secret place far from the familiar. Winding passages that curve, rise and fall take you to the Lightroom stage, and nothing you’ve seen online can prepare you for the scale of the room. The dimensions are immense, as if someone had built a large cinema room, common to most multiplexes, but then scooped out the usual mountainous bank of seats to leave a sort of void into which, when I was there at least, seating is artfully arranged to create a sense of distance from the crowd. In the right angle between the back wall and the stair case that leads you onto the floor, was a wedge of benches, and the rest were spread out symmetrically towards the centre, strategically leaving room around the edges.
The lighting was subdued, and a few images were already projected on the left and right walls, while the large principal wall was filled with a capsule like image and a countdown. No one can leave that theatre and not come away with an understanding of why The Moonwalkers and the Lightroom were a perfect match.
‘There are not stars enough in the sky to rate this show’
Watching a feature in the Lightroom is an experience like no other, and as The Moonwalkers unfolds around you, it’s hard not to become immersed in the story, indeed you have no choice, as surrounded by the impactful music and enfolded by projections that probably cover 90% of the available surface, you are literally a part of the spectacle. Even in the more world-renowned theme parks, where every effort is made to immerse a guest inside a story, there is nothing to match the scale of what the Lightroom can offer.
Unlike conventional cinemas, viewers are encouraged to get up and wander around the room so as to be able to take in the different perspectives around them, making it a viewing experience like no other, and perfect for the sort of info-tainment that Hanks and the collaborative forces behind the Lightroom created when they made The Moonwalkers. What better place to talk about the moon than in a multi-dimensional space, a place as immersive as this, a place almost as panoramic as the moon itself.
Production wise it is a genuine wow moment as the roar of the rocket engines travel through the floor and seats, contrasting almost violently with the serene vocals and harmonies of the score when the landing sites and lunar landscape are recreated, so that, if you have listened to the narrator’s story of the pool and the hose-pipe, and you use just a little imagination you might just think you’re there.
There are not stars enough in the sky to rate this show, and underpinning it all is the familiar, neighbour-next-door style narration of Tom Hanks, who switches from pathos, to simple enthusiasm with as much ease as Anne Nikitin’s tremendous score glides through movements.
‘… it is tremendous entertainment’
To walk around the theatre and take in the myriad of visuals playing across every wall is a bewildering but very novel experience, and though you tend to live for the big, picture moments, and to hope there aren’t too many excited children running around in the quiet ones, and even if it challenges the capacity of a single mind to take it all in, it is tremendous entertainment, and after all, who can say anyone who walked on the moon was truly able to take an earth-rise in either?
Spectacle aside, there is a rich substance to the show, not only is it Hanks’s own personal love-letter to the Lunar program, but it touches on a number of wider and greater themes. Humanity’s endless quest for discovery that began, as the narrator put it in one interview, when someone ventured beyond the confines of his cave, and left a footprint on a distant riverbank. The message of positivity, to individuals and to the whole, that there are answers to be found if we as people will only work together to solve them.
THE OPTIMISM OF DISCOVERY
‘a representation of Tom Hanks’s faith in the unquenchable optimism at the heart of lunar and space exploration’
The sense of standing on the edge of a new era is neatly presaged by some of the opening lines, in which Hanks declares that the moon has always been two things to us, and so harmonising with the central theme which asks us to look back at the Apollo era and at the same time look forwards to the beginning of Artemis, the sister of Apollo.
When I asked a fellow attendee, Dr. Fian Smithwick what he thought, he said that the show had reinvigorated his excitement about space, and that he was looking forward to watching the Artemis crew launch and make their own mark on the moon in 2024.
Above all, The Moonwalkers is a representation of Tom Hanks’s creator’s faith in the unquenchable optimism at the heart of lunar and space exploration, and a call to look once more to the stars as one people and to dream of a time when we might all, to paraphrase Gene Cernan before he left the moon in 1972, to live and work ‘in peace and hope.’
Hanks’s message, in truth is more than a reminder to get excited for another age of Moonwalks rather than Spacewalks, but is for us to recall our shared humanity at a time when it is easy to become dragged down by a multitude of factors that set us apart. To look at the moon, he says early in the show, is to look at an object that every human ever born has looked at and to wonder what the stars might look like from beyond the earth.
In leaving the theatre, one cannot help but wonder if he is right, perhaps if we set our eyes to that distant familiar point where mankind has so often looked for answered, and further, to the stars beyond we will be able to see hope for the future.
The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks will be playing at the Lightroom London, from 6 December to 21 April 2024. Please see the links above for ticket information.