By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
There are nerds, and then there is Richard Garriott.
The son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, Richard made a fortune designing video games from the earliest days of such things, and (although bad vision prevented him from following in his father’s footsteps), he has spent much of his adult life dreaming about ways to get into space.
He’s the subject of a new documentary, “Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission,” that might be described as a self-serving vanity project if it weren’t so entertaining. Not only that, but Garriott takes a camera with him during his visit to the space station, which allows for some intimate views of a place most of us won’t be going any time soon.
Unless we have a few million dollars lying around for the airfare, that is. The movie’s not-so-subtle running theme is the likelihood of space travel as a regular phenomenon, in part to fund the space program itself.
But mostly we concentrate on Garriott, who is quite a specimen. As a teenager, he tinkered with computers and invented a game (initially sold in hand-labeled Ziploc bags) that netted him a quick $150,000.
He invented an avatar for himself, Lord British, who looks like a Dungeons &Dragons type, and created a snake necklace for himself that he wears at all times.
And he got rich. With a rumored $30 million buy-in, he purchased a seat on a Soyuz flight to the space station in 2008, an experience that provides the bulk of the movie’s material.
The process is pretty interesting: going to Russia for the better part of a year to train (including deep study in the Russian language), conducting physical tests, making a pilgrimage to the grave of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.
Because we see Garriott interviewed for the movie, we don’t really have much suspense about whether he successfully executed the trip. And yet the movie’s suspenseful anyway, because you want to see exactly how it happened.
The shots inside the space station are fascinating, although the sight gags involving weightlessness are groan-worthy. The process of re-entry is also cool, especially seen from a camera running inside the cockpit (the Russian capsules drift to earth, unlike the splashdowns of the pre-shuttle American flights).
Director Mike Woolf (who will attend the opening weekend shows at SIFF Cinema) understands the value of documentaries that combine a good story with a memorable character study. “Man on a Mission” succeeds on both counts, and the near-irresistible lure of space travel is the icing on the turbo-booster.
If you had that much money to burn, who wouldn’t be tempted to climb the stairway to the stars?
“Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission” (3 stars)
Engaging documentary — even if it is a bit self-serving — about super-nerd Richard Garriott and his flight into space as a tourist on a Soyuz mission to the space station. Good shots of space, and Garriott’s an interesting specimen.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter.
Showing: SIFF Cinema.