COUNTDOWN (1968) is a semi-science fiction film that I have been vaguely aware of over the years. I know I never saw it when it was released, in fact, I don't recall that the film ever played in any Austin area movie theaters. When I found a copy for two bucks at the thrift store the other day, I knew that here was a chance to fill in a gap in my science fiction film viewing.
COUNTDOWN concerns the efforts of NASA to launch a one-man space flight to the moon. It seems the Russians are about to launch a three-man moon shot before the Apollo program is ready to do the same. The idea is to send a survival hut to the moon ahead of the manned launch. The astronaut who pilots the modified Gemini space capsule to the moon, will then take shelter in the hut and stay there until a subsequent Apollo mission can land and retrieve him.
The project, dubbed the Pilgrim Program, is the brainchild of astronaut Chiz Stewart (Robert Duvall), who wants nothing more than to pilot the craft he designed on the mission he concocted. But NASA top brass refuse to let him go, since Chiz is a military officer and it's determined that a civilian should be the first American on the moon. The assignment is given to Lee Stegler (James Caan), a scientist and rookie astronaut. Chiz is assigned as the mission director and he and Lee continually butt heads during the ramped up training program.
Lee is finally launched on his way to the moon. He lands and sets out to find the survival hut. He finds a surprise on his journey and, with his oxygen supply dwindling, it becomes a race against time for him to find the hut. Does he make it? I'm not telling.
COUNTDOWN is based on the novel THE PILGRIM PROJECT by Hank Searls. The screenplay, by Loring Mandel, is pretty routine stuff. The really interesting things about COUNTDOWN are to be found in the cast and production crew. The film is directed by, believe it or not, Robert Altman. But none of Altman's stylistic quirks are on display here. The movie is directed in a straight-forward, matter-of-fact style that is frankly, pedestrian and boring. The film was produced by none other than William Conrad, who would later star as the rotund title character in the CANNON TV detective series.
Caan and Duvall are both good but neither was a star at this point in their careers. The supporting cast is made up largely of faces seen primarily on television including the lovely Joanna Moore (Nurse Peggy on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) as Caan's wife, Charles Aidman as the chief flight surgeon, Steve Ihnat as a NASA top exec and Ted Knight as a NASA public information official. The whole production has the flat, static look of a made-for-television film. There's lots of stock footage and the final sequences on the moon feature some fairly good special effects. But the narrative lacks any real suspense or tension. Better films in this genre include THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT (1967),,MAROONED (1969), THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), APOLLO 13 (1995) and GRAVITY (2013). Sad to say, I can't really recommend COUNTDOWN to anyone who is not a die hard genre fan.
Despite it's B-movie status, COUNTDOWN earned a comic book adaptation, published by Dell Comics. I have a copy of the comic book in my collection. It has a nice photo cover, as you can see, with make-your-eyes-bleed interior artwork by Jack Sparling.