Film Review: Man on a Mission: Richard Garriot's Road to the Stars

Timid documentary tags along on a man’s $30 million ride into space without probing deep enough to provoke awe, insight or emotional involvement.

A self-made businessman chooses to spend his fortune on a flight into space. This should be a captivating story. But the documentary focusing on Richard Garriot’s voyage to the international space station keeps to the perfunctory and superficial. It feels as if the filmmakers followed their subjects around like golden retrievers, too eager to please their master, and unwilling to sniff out any unusual angles. A cynic might say the movie was an advertisement for Space Adventures, the space tourism company in which Garriot is an investor. More likely, it’s just a lazy effort by the filmmakers. In contrast, Garriot’s 15-minute monologue about his time in space, which he recounted for the performance venue The Moth, circumvents many of the documentary’s flaws. Man on a Mission definitely has a story to tell, it just doesn’t have the right storyteller.

Decades after Garriot first invested in Space Adventures, he underwent a year of training in order to fly into space. The impressively thorough preparation includes things like learning Russian so he can read all the buttons on the space equipment, and entering machines that expose him to eight G-forces. He even has precautionary surgery to correct a condition that could cause internal bleeding in space. Garriot himself is something of a character. He made a fortune creating the first real multi-player role-playing game, and his father was an astronaut. For fun, he dresses like one of the characters in the game he created.

The story may be interesting, but it lacks perspective. Footage emphasizing the emotions of those involved, an easy way to structure a story, is barely present. The filmmakers are unsuccessful at cultivating a sense of awe and appreciation of what it means to fly in space. Absent an emotionally involving story, the documentary should have taken a point-of-view, developing what is only mentioned in passing. Should private citizens voyage to space? Is there something inspiring or repellent about a man who quite nearly wants the Moon? Alternately, the space culture, which requires technical precision, relentless double-checking, and sometimes strange (and antiquated-looking) equipment, could have been covered in anthropological detail. Man on a Mission goes into depth on none of those issues.

Director Mike Woolf, perhaps failing to get enough material from Garriot himself, expands his story to a cast of characters that is sometimes intriguing, sometimes distracting. Renita Fincke, the wife of American astronaut Mike Fincke, makes a disproportionately memorable impression with her emotional outpouring about the difficulties of being an astronaut’s wife. (She gave birth to their second child while Fincke was in space). But where are Garriot’s family members’ emotional reactions? In general, Woolf relies mainly on seated, talk-to-the-camera interviews. A more diligent filmmaker might have tried to capture Garriot and his family doing something in the frame together, instead of relying on their words to get the point across.

The cinematography, too, frequently lacks inspiration. The space footage fails to engender wonderment. Only the still shots, captured with a special NASA camera and edited into the mix, actually provoke awe. More glaringly, the filmmakers have shaky, muddy footage of Garriot’s landing on Earth, and then show a perfectly lit still shot—taken by a camera we see onscreen. How come the still camera could get the shot but not the moving camera?

Garriot himself sometimes comes off as a likeable, mild eccentric, and other times a touch arrogant. But isn’t that the kind of person who declares that they will fly into space? With its timid, wispy filmmaking, Man on a Mission misses the opportunity to make a compelling story about a private citizen in space.