Monday, January 09, 2012

Gamer in Space: Richard Garriot

Richard Garriot is an entrepreneur with geek chic and hipster cred. A pioneering MMO role-playing game developer, he also had the spare thirty million dollars to buy a ticket into space. He was not just a customer though. The entire phenomenon was largely his idea. Mike Woolf documents Garriot’s long-awaited Heinleinian voyage in Man on a Mission: Richard Garriot’s Road to the Stars (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As a teenager, Garriot created the Akalabeth game on his Apple IIE, just for fun. He sold 30,000 copies. It gave him seed money at an early age and laid the foundation for his bestselling Ultima franchise. The son of Skylab 3 astronaut Owen Garriot, the gaming entrepreneur always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, his near-sightedness was an automatic disqualification. Not easily dissuaded, Garriot always thought long-term, frequently investing in ventures pursuing private space travel.

One of those start-ups was Space Adventures, which eventually forged an alliance with the Russian space program to send up so-called space tourists. Garriot was first in line, until the dot-com bubble caused a temporary hiccup in his finances. Economically back on track, Garriot begin his year-long training regimen, with Woolf’s cameras in tow.

This is hardly one of those quiet observational documentaries. Clearly an evangelist for space travel, particularly as a private sector concern, Garriot freely discusses every aspect of the mission on camera. He wants audiences to share his enthusiasm, which is a rather appealing change.

Viewers also get an appreciation of the Russian/Soviet space program, which Garriot extols at length for all their firsts. Still, he readily admits that moon thing was a biggie for the Americans. We also see the reverence and camaraderie with which Garriot observes all the Cosmonaut pre-flight rituals. (However, we don’t see them partake in the traditional viewing Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert, a surprisingly fun yarn for a Soviet propaganda picture.)

While Garriot’s overgrown fanboy persona could get annoying, if for instance you were trapped in a confined space with him for over a week, his idealism is kind of cool in an eighty-three minute film. His advocacy of private enterprise is also decidedly rare in so-called documentaries. Frankly, he deserves a lot of credit, putting his money and highly valuable time where his mouth is. There was also an obvious element of physical risk, especially since the Soyuz rockets had been acting a bit “glitchy” during the missions preceding his own. Offering optimism for the future, Mission is informative and entertaining. Recommended for general audiences well beyond snobby doc-watchers, it opens this Friday (1/13) at the Cinema Village.