Bad news, Tom Cruise: Shooting that SpaceX movie is going to be almost impossible

Tom Cruise might be a master of action movie stunts, but shooting a blockbuster in space could be his hardest mission yet.

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
Expertise Space, Futurism, Science and Sci-Tech, Robotics, Tech Culture Credentials
  • Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Claire Reilly
3 min read

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In early May, NASA confirmed that it'll partner with SpaceX to film a movie with Mr. Top Gun himself on the international space station. Details are sparse: We know it won't be part of the Mission: Impossible franchise, but we do know that Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman is attached to direct. Still, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief at the news, knowing that the new space race would finally bring us what we really wanted -- a sci-fi blockbuster shot in actual space. 

But while this new blockbuster will no doubt be the biggest film shot in space, it won't be the first. 

That's an honor that belongs to video game developer and space tourist Richard Garriott.

In 2008, Garriott (who's also the son of NASA Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott) paid $30 million for a ticket on the Soyuz to spend two weeks on the International Space Station as a private citizen. In between controlling the power systems on the Soyuz and adjusting to life on the ISS, he also shot and edited the 5-minute short film Apogee of Fear while he was in space. 

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A storyboard card from Richard Garriott's short film Apogee of Fear. Garriott planned out the entire film prior to arriving on the International Space Station.

Courtesy of Richard Garriott

Garriott's main takeaway? Shooting in space is way harder (and slower) than you think. 

"If you think about a movie, the pre-production is really critical," he tells me via a Zoom call. "You plan out every shot, so once you have a large expensive crew onsite, you can be as efficient as possible in recording it. In space, that's going to be far worse. Because not only is every moment of the crew far more expensive, but also every shot is far harder to get."

Garriott storyboarded the film and prepared his full shot list while on Earth, plotting out which astronaut co-stars he would need and when. He mapped out the dialogue and movement, and even included translations for the Russian cosmonauts aboard the ISS. 

But despite this meticulous planning, space still threw up its fair share of curveballs: Movement is hard to plot, your props don't stay in place and dealing with sound is a nightmare. (The fans that circulate air on the ISS make for terrible audio.)

And then there are the difficulties Garriott found in getting around the ISS as a first-timer. 

"On the Space Station, if you try to leave the floor by pushing with your toes to get something on another surface... you'll push so hard, on accident, that you'll smack your head really hard on the other side," he says. 

"Everything on the space station is held to the wall generally with a little piece of velcro. So if you're moving through the space station and your legs are banging into the sides, which they are as a beginner, you're dislodging screwdrivers, film canisters, lens caps, and by the time you get to the other end you look around and there's a cloud of debris." 


Astronauts Michael Fincke (left) and Gregory Chamitoff (right) in a scene with Richard Garriott (center) from the short film Apogee of Fear. 

Courtesy of Richard Garriott

As he adjusted to life in microgravity, Garriott quickly learned that space isn't the place for fast movement. His advice for shooting a blockbuster in space? Think less Armageddon action, and more 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

"Everything in space, the real stuff in space, is not action movie fast, it is slow and deliberate," he says. 

"The reality of filming in space may mean that either they will find that filming a lot of those action scenes will have been easier on Earth, where it's more controllable, or they will have to adjust what they mean by an action movie. More like 2001, where it's more psychological than it is like a knife fight."

As for whether we'll see more movies shot in space after Tom Cruise's slated debut, the rise of private space travel and vessels like SpaceX's Crew Dragon could make it easier (and less expensive to get into space. But it may just be easier to do what Hollywood has always done: shoot on a soundstage and fix it in post. 

Watch this: Making movies in space is way harder than you think