I seldom award five stars to anything -- to deserve the top rating it must be nearly flawless. Marooned is one of those very few that do.
The story is seemingly simple: an Apollo spacecraft with a crew of three experiences a failure that leaves it marooned in orbit with an oxygen supply of 46 hours. All attempts to correct the malfunction fail. A rescue mission is launched.
Simple, right?. Anything but! The tension slowly ratchets up throughout the film as NASA and the USAF confront and surmount obstacle after obstacle that block their every effort. First there is Keith's dry "the proposal is refused" response to the rescue mission. It takes the US President telling him to "put away your slide rule" to convince him that the rescue mission must be mounted at all cost. Eventually, we see Keith change from a hardheaded engineer to a true leader of men determined to accomplish the impossible rescue. He and his team cut through the maze of procedural orthodoxy to get the XRV and Titan booster ready in 42 hours, they risk launching the non-man rated rocket and untried spacecraft even without the necessary computer programs ("just put me in the ballpark and I'll fly it in manually"). Finally they are nearly thwarted by an unexpected hurricane, but succeed nonetheless.
Paralleling all this is the plight of the stranded astronauts. Together they struggle in their efforts to conserve oxygen (taking sleeping pills, keeping calm, distracting themselves) and agonize over the option of going EVA to inspect the spacecraft.
Notice that in this space flick there are no space aliens, no explosions, no shooting, no warp-speed dogfights or desperate jumps into hyperspace, no cantinas for gunslinging aliens. This is, little doubt, the reason for the few one- and two-star reviews here. Sorry fellas, this is a film for adults. If your mental age is less than thirty, or your attention span is less than two minutes, then no, you probably will dislike this film.
There are complaints that the pace is too slow, but I say that the plot moves along briskly from event to event. Yes, many or most all of the scenes are "just people talking" but they are talking about important and pertinent things having to do directly with the plot or with the character motivations. I don't see one single scene that could be deleted from the movie without taking away from its effect. Marooned is the most nearly perfect story of its kind ever filmed.
The scenes aboard Ironman 1 following the launch of the XRV are the most understated and poignant I have ever seen in film. In particular I refer to their necessary decision to sacrifice one of themselves so the other two astronauts can survive. Just for such a situation to arise is itself a most compelling feature. The writers have included the full range of possible human reactions: dark humor ("Let's do this scientifically -- the two big guys throw the little guy out"), denial, as when Stone comments that there probably really is enough O2 for the three of them until the resuce; rage, catatonia, euphoria (Hatch blown!), and finally, Pruett's courageous decision to get it over with at last (refusing Lloyd's dry offer "well, it's logical it should be me since I'm using the most oxygen"). What especially struck me was the subtle way Pruett decides to go about the grim business. He vows to go out and "fix that engine" when in fact he knows as well as the other two that he isn't going to. In this way, he transforms himself from a hapless victim of a space accident into a hero who set out on an impossible task. The only way I think this could have been improved would have been to stress that he is the mission commander and felt responsible for his two subordinate crew members. Perhaps he was an ex-USN ship captain and this feeling is deeply ingrained in his character. The movie does not make this explicit but that's the way I choose to interpret it.
The special effects are not the equal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but they are nevertheless quite good. There are some scenes in which the colors are whited out. This happens when the camera is shooting downsun and the scene is washed in the solar glare. Also, the microgravity is respresented quite well given the technology in 1969. The actors were suspended from well-placed bungee cords or on spring-mounted platforms. The space scenes were not shot abourd the NASA Vomit Comet as were the scenes in Apollo 13.
I detected only a very few technical errors in the movie. For one, NASA would not have used a Saturn V merely to deliver an Apollo CSM to Earth orbit. They would have used the cut-down Saturn IB used to launch the Skylab crews, and the Apollo 9 mission to Earth orbit to flight test the LEM.
Lastly, I don't believe that the command module has enough cabin air to push the entire CSM away from the Voshkod as portrayed. At any rate, it would not simply have translated and then come to a stop; it would have continued drifting away because another thrust would have to necessary to arrest the craft's translational motion. Also, since the gas escapted through the CM hatch, it would have caused the CSM to tumble. The hatch is located far from the craft's center of mass.
Most importantly, given the depth of mission risk planning taken by NASA, they would not have expended so much of the RCS propellant to preclude returning to the space station after the retroburn failed. NASA would never foreclose such an alternative mission option. (Of course, it was necessary to the story for it to have been impossible for the crew to return to the Skylab.) I believe the filmmakers should have had the retroburn proceed about halfway through and then have it fail (perhaps with a small explosion to satisfy the children in the audience who need such excitement).
All in all, a drama not to be missed, and the most significant space film ever made. For adults, that is.