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Marcus, P. (1996). Apollo 13. Psychoanal. Rev., 83(1):125-128.

(1996). Psychoanalytic Review, 83(1):125-128

Film Notes

Apollo 13

Paul Marcus

The story of space travel captures something beyond the scope of fiction. Today's brand of suspense thrillers, courtroom dramas, and mysteries challenge us merely to see the truth behind the veils of evil illusions. Even science fiction superimposes a fixed set of rules on a fantasy world, such as The Force in Star Wars. Still, there is a truth out there, and the truth will prevail. But the real-life drama of space travel poses something new: When the truth fails, Man will prevail. For all its associations with technology and scientific awareness, space travel ultimately symbolizes perhaps the most human-and irrational-side of us. Apollo 13 specifically tries to isolate that part of the human psyche that emerges when reality says No. Real creativity, we find out, involves not learning the laws but breaking them, rewriting them. For all the numerical jargon spouted back and forth by Jim Lovell's crew and Houston flight control, we learn that what motivates true scientific progress emanates more from the gut than the mind. In two and one half hours, the film tries to capture and distill just that core, that drive that not only refuses to be hindered by the limits of reality but which insists on breaching them. It is more than heroism, which implies mainly the overcoming of fear. This drive is also proactive-it is humanity's posing an unrealistic, irrational, and audacious challenge to reality.

And yet, one wonders just what director Ron Howard hoped to accomplish by feeding this anachronistic bite of apple pie to a generation skeptical of sugar and happy endings. Films like Jurassic Park and even The Net teach us to deal humbly with nature and to fear technology. The key to overcoming uncomfortable truths, it seems, lies in realistically understanding them. But Apollo 13, and the reality of space travel in general, challenges us to reject natural limits. The film's simple message amounts to: Where there is no way, there is a will.

Ironically, this message carries a unique specter of relevance in today's academic climate, making it a kind of Zen for the 1990s. The gradual exodus of students from theoretical to applied sciences, from physics to engineering, from abstract humanities to concrete apprenticeships, leaves some blunt writing on the wall.

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