Some people divide 1960s SF into 2001: Space Odyssey and Everything Else: A Cheesy Outing. One exception came along in 1969. Marooned features A-list actors and production values.

A few months before Apollo 13, the theatres ran a movie in which American astronauts, returning from a very-near-future space station, must inform Houston that they have a problem.

Title: Marooned

Directed by John Sturges (with preliminary work by Frank Capra).1
Written by Mayo Simon from the novel by Martin Caidin.2

Cast

Gregory Peck as Charles Keith
Richard Crenna as Jim Pruett
David Janssen as Ted Dougherty
James Franciscus as Clayton “Stoney” Stone
Gene Hackman as “Buzz” Lloyd
Lee Grant as Celia Pruett
Nancy Kovack as Teresa Stone
Mariette Hartley as Betty Lloyd
Scott Brady as Public Affairs Officer
Frank Marth as Air Force Systems Director
Craig Huebing as Flight Director
Bill Couch as Russian Cosmonaut
Matt Emery as Texas State Trooper
John Forsythe as Charlie the voice of the president
Several real-life reporters as themselves

Available on Amazon Video.

Premise:

In the near-future, three American astronauts returning from five months on a space station encounter psychological and technical problems that leave their ship stranded in orbit. NASA launches a rescue effort—but will it succeed?

High Point:

The film captures the look and feel of contemporaneous space exploration, and riffs on a zeitgeist we need to revive. Space travel will be fraught with danger and it won’t look like an action movie or space opera, but it will be worth doing.

Low Points

The first half lurches at slow pace from scene to scene, while the second misses some opportunities for suspense and development. Unsurprisingly, Alfonso Cuarón cites this film as an influence on Gravity, which reworks and improves several elements of Marooned, and uses effects techniques unavailable in 1969.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 The scenario has been used many times in written SF, but I believe this is its first 2001: A Space Odyssey, and require a certain suspension of disbelief today.

The movie design relies, quite reasonably, on period NASA, so that the astronauts ride in a slightly roomier Apollo capsule, and the space station looks very like Skylab, then a few years in the future.

Acting: 5/6 The movie went with a top-flight cast. Most problematic is, oddly enough, the great Gregory Peck as the head of Mission Control. He’s effective at playing a character written with the emotional control we expect from someone in his position, but we get less of the deeper insight he brought to his most famous roles.

Production: 5/6 Some shaky effects aside, the film looks good, and Mission Control, constructed (in part) by people who contracted for the space program and for an audience that watched the moon landing,3 is entirely convincing.

Story: 4/6

Emotional Response: 4/6 This somewhat dry movie remains compelling, if slow-moving.

Overall: 5/6 Marooned did not do especially well in its original run, but it has developed a small following. I recommend it for one viewing to SF fans.

Fun fact: footage from this movie was reused in an episode of Wonder Woman and (reportedly) the original “com chatter” for Disney’s Space Mountain.

In total, Marooned receives 30/42

Notes

1. Capra, who crafted a space film for the 1964 World’s Fair, started as project director, but left when he saw no way to keep the budget as low as the studio required.

2. Pop culture remembers Caiden better for his 1972 novel The Cyborg, wherein Steve Austin, astronaut, a man left barely alive by an accident, is rebuilt by gentlemen under the direction of spy chief Oscar Goldman.

Its mass media adaptations proved more successful than the more somber Marooned.

3. Dear Conspiracy Theorists: NASA actually sent people to the moon. Deal with it.