There is a reason, despite the criticisms of Neil Degrasse Tyson, why science fantasy will always trump hard science fiction when it comes to the media of film. It's kind of accepted that if you are taking the time to read a book that you have the patience, and possibly the intellect, to understand the concepts presented and are willing to marvel at many of the things the author gets right, even if its decades down the line. With movies, however, it is a lot more interesting to watch a bunch of ships dogfighting, with full sound in space and maneuvers that ignore the fact that the lack of atmosphere in space make them unnecessary.
After 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's not surprising that film execs would think that maybe another slow-moving, largely fact-based science fiction film with convincing effects would hit it big. So, in that vein, we have John Sturges taking over a movie that was originally meant to be directed by Frank Capra and adapting it from a book by Martin Caidin. It also has something 2001 didn't: major stars! How could it fail?
Jim Pruett (Richard Crenna), Clayton Stone (James Franciscus) and Buzz Lloyd (Gene Hackman) are the crew of Ironman One. Their job is to dock with a refurbished Saturn Five rocket stage that has been set up as a lab. Their seven-month mission is do experiments while proving the viability of being in space long enough for interplanetary missions. Everything is fine on the way up but, five months in, their mission control officer Charles Keith (Gregory Peck) becomes concerned that their health and mental state is deteriorating. Deciding that the goals of the mission have largely been met, he decides to bring them back.
That is when things go awry. Preparing for reentry, the retro-rockets don't fire, although the light indicating they are firing comes on. Manually trying to fire them results in the same thing. With not enough fuel to make it back to the station and limited oxygen, the astronauts begin trying to do what they can to get back to Earth. However, Keith orders them to stay inside and not try to fix the craft on their own, as he has workers testing a cop of the engine on the ground in order to duplicate the problem.
Rather than wait for test results to come up with something, veteran astronaut Ted Dougherty (David Janssen) demands that Keith put together a rescue mission. Keith is reluctant, as there are only 42 hours worth of air left, and he doubts that a viable rescue mission can be attempted at that time, despite Dougherty's assertion that an XRV module, that can glide to a landing on re-entry, can be refitted for a crew of four and launched quickly on a regular payload rocket if a number of the usual procedures are bypassed. Keith flat out refuses, but is forced to change his mind when the President intervenes.
Work begins on the rescue mission, but another factor comes into play. Hurricane Alma, originally meant to go out to sea, makes a beeline for Cape Canaveral. So, not only must they launch a rescue ship with barely enough time for the three astronauts to maintain their air supply even with rationing, but possibly do it in the middle of a raging hurricane. After rising winds cause the launch to be scrapped within the last minute, a sudden reprieve comes in the literal eye of the hurricane, allowing the rescue ship to launch.
Still, the delay has put further strain on the oxygen supply in Ironman One, with a hard choice to be made that shows there may be enough air left if their crew is cut down to two. Dougherty races toward the disabled capsule as the astronauts succumb more and more to the drug-like effects of oxygen deprivation, but there may also be hope coming from an unsuspected source.
Marooned was re-edited, with some music added in, as Space Travelers. That edit ended up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. While the original isn't goofy in any sense, what it is, in the end, is dull. There is some occasional tension - the initial discovery that the rockets aren't firing, the launch of the rescue ship - but for the most part the pace is excruciatingly slow. I personally like movies when they have a slow pace that serves the film - both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, contemporaries of which this movie is trying to be in league with, are not exactly action-packed extravaganzas, but you never feel like you're watching paint dry. Marooned could really have been an 80-minute movie without losing anything. In fact, it would have probably gained quite a bit, as it would have made for a taught science fiction rescue adventure, and critics would have praised it up and down for its realism and execution.
It is sad that it tried to be more than it actually was. The decision to use ambient sounds and minimal music cues (the horrible synth lines in the Space Travelers version are nowhere to be found in the original) is brilliant. The stock footage of actual rocket launches blends seamlessly into the effects that, while not up to today's standard or even that of 2001, are still way ahead of what most movies could do at the time. We have an entire troop of experienced actors who all, as can be predicted, play their parts well.
The end product, though largely accurate and even having some influence of future real-life NASA movies, is a plodding disappointment.
Time: 134 minutes
Starring: Gregory Peck, David Janssen, James Franciscus, Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman
Director: John Sturges