Step Aside, Méliès: A Space Program, Tom Sachs’s Lo-Fi Mission to Mars

a space program-sachs
Photo by Josh White, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

A Space Program
Directed by Van Neistat
Opens March 18 at the Metrograph

Lost in the all the hullabaloo around SpaceX firing off its next-level Amazon shipment to the International Space Station in May 2012 was the fact that artist Tom Sachs and his crafty crew sent two female astronauts to Mars that same spring—and on more than one occasion. In truth, they did so imaginatively, soaring on the DIY wings of tyvek, plywood, and Atari.

Elaborating his we-can-do-it gumption and see-what-I-am-doing-here focus to fit the Park Avenue Armory’s huge drill hall, Sachs’s Space Program 2.0: Mars was the artist’s largest-scale work to date, and, as these things often go, it got the the coverage that such large shows demand, recorded for the benefit of all mankind.

Created by Sachs and directed by his long-time collaborator, the filmmaker Van Neistat, A Space Program: The Movie is not a documentary, they have made clear, but more of a well-shot industrial film, like the sort you’d find in shop class. Some criticism hit Sachs for his branding of limited-edited Nike Space Program shoes, bags, and other apparel; and the movie’s release does come during the run-up to Sachs and company opening a new show at the Noguchi Museum. So perhaps it’s the sort of film you’d find in a gift shop.

Wherever you’d find it, A Space Program: The Movie will seem peculiarly inventive, exuding the deadpan evangelism and inspiring DIY at the heart of Sachs’s creative school of bricolage. Here a propane torch, a mirror, and some simple special effects are combined to create the rocket’s massive flame. The spacecraft is mostly, obviously made of plywood. Plywood is one of this film’s stars, on equal footing with the spaceship’s crew, who like it are introduced, one by one, in cool, dramatically lit shoots. Film is a smart, natural partner for the Space Program.

A Space Program fits in nicely alongside the playful tradition of the sweded movie, the Michel Gondry-inspired fan-made recreations of favorite films. Like those, A Space Program: The Movie, and Sachs’s work in general, is resourceful, cheeky, and fun. Like them, the space between the art and the viewer is made more intimate and accessible. And like them, this movie is on the shorter side, running a little over one hour. With an overlong scene involving space-crew bickering and and an excerpt from a 60s IBM video, however, it is a shaggy seventy minutes—a bit stretched and underworked. Sachs fan will likely still be happy. For the rest, it is more likely that A Space Program: The Movie will be remembered much like those films you saw in shop class, or that sweded version of the Pacific Rim trailer.


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