What People are Getting Wrong this Week: Faking the Moon Landing

What People are Getting Wrong this Week: Faking the Moon Landing

I’m going to be first in line to see Fly Me to the Moon when it opens on July 12. Judging from the trailer, the movie tells a lighthearted, but believable tale of how and why NASA might have faked the moon landing. The clip even offers a tongue-in-cheek nod to the conspiracy theorists who are going to eat this movie up like buttered popcorn.

By creating fictional characters based on real people and mixing actual details of the governments’ attempts to “sell” the moon landing to the public with fanciful elements and a “they faked the whole thing” conclusion, Fly Me to the Moon will keep soft-headed people saying “That’s exactly how it happened!” for years, even if the movie is clearly intended as a joke. (Conspiracy theorists are not famous for their senses of humor.)

Five movies that have shaped conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theorists usually aren’t very creative either, so they’ve always borrowed heavily from movies when it comes time to build out their paranoid worldviews. Where you and I see entertainment, they see veiled revelations and covert agendas—confirmation that their weirdest ideas are the truth. To get ready for next month’s disinformation campaign, let’s delve into five science fiction films that have significantly influenced conspiracy theorists and explore the connections between these cinematic tales and real world beliefs .

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s vision of a world where the careless elite live in glittering skyscrapers while the lowly proles toil in misery below has been influencing conspiracy theorist for nearly 100 years. While I don’t imagine most modern conspiracy theorists are actively checking out silent German cinema from the 1920s, Metropolis influenced every science fiction film that followed, and the whole conspiracy theory blueprint is laid out in the movie: There’s the way robot-Maria controls the citizenry’s minds, the simplified portrayal of the class system meant as illustration but taken as literal truth, the use of esoteric imagery of the Tower of Babel and the Whore of Babylon—fringe thinkers love connecting things to misunderstood antiquity. It’s all there.

Where to stream: The Roku Channel, Tubi, Pluto TV, Plex, Kino Film, digital rental

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

This 1962 film heavily shaped the public’s idea of “brainwashing.” Shadowy actors covertly influencing the minds of innocent people through nefarious mechanisms is present in just about every conspiracy theory, usually because it’s the only explanation for why the SHEEPLE don’t see the TRUTH that’s right in FRONT OF THEM. (All-caps is another dead giveaway.) But The Manchurian Candidate’s portrayal of brainwashing and mind control isn’t especially accurate or useful. How people’s thoughts can and can’t be manipulated is way more complex and nuanced than the film portrays. It’s a shame that the CIA destroyed (or HID) most of the results of its (very real) research on mind control, because if you do a deep dive on “Project Paperclip” and other covert influence programs, it starts to feel like the research actually came to the depressing conclusion that esoteric methods like hypnosis, “truth serums,” secret LSD dosing, and similarly gross human rights violations don’t work as well as just beating confessions out of people.

Where to stream: MGM+, The Criterion Channel, Tubi, digital rental

Capricorn One (1978)

Moon landing conspiracy theories began with the publication of Rockedyne employee Bill Kaysing’s pamphlet “We Never Went to the Moon.” It was popular enough to inspire the release of 1978 O.J. Simpson vehicle Capricorn One, a movie in which the government fakes a mission to Mars to ensure the space program will continue to be funded. (A quaint idea; why would they even care what the public thought?) The film went on to inspire further moon landing conspiracy theories in an unholy feedback loop, including one that posited the film The Shining was Stanley Kubrick’s covert admission that he’d helped NASA create the footage of the astronauts bouncing across the lunar surface. Capricorn One is cheesy treat for fans of 1970s science fiction, but seen through modern eyes, it disproves moon landing conspiracy theories by demonstrating how impossible it would have been to convincingly fake footage of a space mission—this was a big budget production where they really tried for realism, but Capricorn One’s Mars mission looks fake as hell. 

Where to stream: Prime Video, Peacock, Hulu, The Roku Channel, Pluto TV, Freevee, digital rental

Alternative 3 (1977)

British pseudo-documentary Alternative 3 is another conspiracy theory blueprint movie. Not many people saw the original broadcast—it was only aired in the U.K. and Australia— but its ideas are still resonating in conspiracy circles. The film begins with an investigation of the mysterious disappearance of 24 British scientists and ends with a shadowy secret government program that sees the elites running off to colonies on the moon and Mars to escape global warming. In Alternative 3, the moon landings are legitimate, but are only undertaken as a smoke screen to cover up the real space program. So Alternative 3 has secret space programs, a shadowy cabal of rich people pulling the strings, slave colonies on the moon, and even aliens, all of which became gospel to a certain variety of fringe thinkers. It’s easy to see why it’s been so influential. It’s a really well done film (check out how this movie brilliantly faked a Mars landing.) Here in the U.S., the “novelization” of the film was released in the form of (fictional) secret documents and quickly became a bestseller. Due to an error involving the publication date that affected some bookstore chains, it was put on store shelves early, then quickly removed, leading to hysteria among the fringe newsletters and reactionary radio shows that made up the pre-internet conspiracy theory community. It sure looked like the government censored the book’s release. 

Where to stream: YouTube

The Matrix (1999)

Unlike Alternative 3, few people believe 1999’s The Matrix is literally a documentary, but if you accept the premise of the film—that reality itself is suspect so you can’t trust even your own senses—that doesn’t matter. The idea of alternative realities wasn’t invented by The Matrix, but the movie packaged it so attractively that it spread even among people who normally wouldn’t be considering such esoteric ideas. The idea that you have “taken the red pill” and can see the real reality where the rest of us are stuck in our pods being fed a stream of fake sensory information is intoxicating to some, both because it removes the cognitive dissonance that comes from having your beliefs challenged, and it helps explains why everyone backs away from you when you start telling them about how they faked the moon landing.

Where to stream: Netflix, digital rental

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