Review: “Apollo 11: Quarantine”

In 2019, director Todd Douglas Miller reimagined what a documentary could be with “Apollo 11.” The film told the story of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission during which men first walked on the moon using only stunningly restored archival footage; no modern interviews or voiceovers, no recreations. In light of the current coronavirus pandemic, which finds many of us around the world staying home and forced to quarantine in the event we are exposed to illness, Miller brings new, never-before-seen footage to light in a short documentary sequel called “Apollo 11: Quarantine.”

For 21 days, from the moment they left the moon, the astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—remained in quarantine to ensure that they didn’t bring back any germs from the moon to Earth (the moon has since been proved sterile, rendering this quarantine procedure unnecessary). After landing in the Pacific Ocean and being picked up by an aircraft carrier, the astronauts were confined to a mobile quarantine facility made out of a converted airstream trailer. This trailer transported them across the ocean, to Hawaii, and ultimately to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they stayed for the remainder of their time in quarantine.

Astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong inside the mobile quarantine facility

In many films, including “Apollo 11,” this quarantine period is largely glossed over, but here, Miller presents us with a portrait of just what that time was like for the astronauts. Is it as interesting or exciting as the moon landing itself? No, and I don’t know that “Apollo 11: Quarantine” makes for a great standalone film without watching it in conjunction with “Apollo 11.” But it’s still fascinating to watch the astronauts and their support staff who quarantined with them at the LRL go through activities both mundane and surreal. We watch them communicate via telephone with their relatives standing just feet away from them, but separated by the walls of the trailer. We watch the astronauts play cards, while elsewhere staff sanitize the items they brought back from the moon with them, including the capsule they traveled in. We even see Armstrong celebrate his birthday in quarantine; the staff bake him a cake, and he blows out the candles. We may be currently quarantined under different circumstances, but it’s interesting to see these men undergoing similar rituals over 50 years ago to what we’re going through now.

The quality of the restored color footage gathered from NASA and the National Archives in this film is just as stunningly crisp as what we saw in “Apollo 11.” It is truly wonderful that this mission was so well documented on film, and that all these decades later we can look through this window into the past just as if it happened yesterday. But perhaps the best part of “Apollo 11: Quarantine” is its final scene, in which Aldrin, post-quarantine, addresses a joint session of Congress. His words about his and his comrades’ accomplishment, that “this should give all of us hope and inspiration to overcome some of the more difficult problems here on Earth,” is a reminder for all of us today struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel that if we can go to the moon, we can do anything.

“Apollo 11: Quarantine” is now playing in select IMAX theaters nationwide, and will be released on demand on February 5. Runtime: 23 minutes.

Media review screener courtesy NEON.

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