The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks: genuinely out of this world

The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks
The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks - Justin Sutcliffe

First Hockney, now the Moon. The London venue Lightroom opened in January with a kaleidoscopic digital “immersive” exhibition of the paintings of David Hockney. Bigger & Closer (not smaller and further away) – to give the show its full title – comprised vast projections of the artist’s work onto the walls and floor of a giant subterranean hole near King’s Cross. Despite mixed reviews, the show was so popular that its run was extended from June to last Sunday. And now here’s the sequel that is, as it turns out, much much further away: a trip into space via the Apollo missions.

Not, thankfully, a reboot of the indulgently ghastly 1988 Michael Jackson film of similar name, The Moonwalkers using original camera and video footage from Nasa’s 1969-1972 Apollo missions to the Moon. Eschewing CGI technology, these images have been cleaned up and enlarged to galactic proportions.

Narrated and co-written by space buff Tom Hanks (who also played astronaut Jim Lovell in the 1995 film Apollo 13), Moonwalkers transports us on the analogue missions that sent humans into space using a computer that was, the programme reminds us, significantly less powerful than the iPhone in our pocket. The two-day turnaround from Hockney is quite something; no need for the bothersome business of a hammer and nails in the new frontier of digital exhibitions, I suppose.

Moonwalkers is not high art. Nor is it a virtual reality sci-fi extravaganza. Rather, it’s a thrilling escapist educational adventure that’s like being stuck inside the Google Earth app as it pings us around the cosmos. Lasting a little less than an hour, the show is built around four key moments: the take-off of Apollo 11 in July 1969, the Moon landings a few days later, the bimbling excursions of the lunar rover, and the astronauts’ return to Earth.

The room shakes and the hairs on one’s arms stand up as the Apollo’s Saturn V rocket takes off from Kennedy Space centre. Later, Lightroom’s literal crater becomes a figurative one as Buzz Aldrin describes the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon and we’re surrounded and engulfed on four sides (the ceiling remains black) by mountainous lunar regolith. It’s cosmic.

The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks
The Moonwalkers: A Journey with Tom Hanks - Justin Sutcliffe

This show is the very definition of immersive. One moment, we’re in Texas’s Rice stadium as President John F Kennedy makes his famous “we choose to go to the Moon” speech. The next, the room becomes Nasa’s control centre. Schoolchildren in particular will love Moonwalkers, while adults will gawp and wonder what they’ve really actually done with their lives.

There are quibbles, mind. This this is an unashamedly US-centric account. The first human in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, is relegated to a bit part, while India’s recent landing of a robotic probe on the moon – for example – escapes mention altogether. This is effectively a NASA advert draped in Hanksian awe; a curtain-raiser for the US’s upcoming Artemis lunar missions in 2024. And the orchestral score, composed by Anne Nikitin, is filmic and epic. But I felt it lacked some of the excitement and jeopardy of Public Service Broadcasting’s 2015 album The Race for Space, which set the space race in broader, electronic sonic context.

But at its best, this is stunning. Occasionally, it’s out of this world.

Until April 21;