This Month's Featured Equipment Reviews
Written by Bill Warren
Tuesday, 16 March 1999
|Apollo 13 (DTS)
|Universal Home Video
Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen
Quinlan, Joe Spano, Chris Ellis, Marc McClure, Clint Howard
'Apollo 13' remains Ron Howard's best movie as a director, compelling,
well-acted, deeply involving and tightly focussed on its story, the
near-disaster of the Apollo 13 moon voyage. Even on home video, this
movie -- which like most big-scale films, still works better in
theaters no matter how good your system -- retains its power and
suspense. And the latter is Howard's finest accomplishment: the whole
world knows that through a combination of luck, skill, training,
ingenuity and focussed attention, the three Apollo 13 astronauts
returned safely to Earth. But the movie still manages to be
nail-bitingly suspenseful from almost the beginning until Tom Hanks'
summing-up voiceover at the end.
It's so engrossing as to be nearly hypnotic, with strong but
self-effacing performances by a good cast, and a very tight focus on
just what happened. Mission commander Jim Lovell is played by Tom
Hanks, reuniting with director Howard; the other two members of the
mission are Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon),
who at the last minute replaced Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise). The
principal figure down in Mission Control is Gene Kranz (Ed Harris, back
in another real-life space saga).
The screenplay by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert is based on Lost
Moon, the book about the mission by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. It
isn't a wistful, sardonic muse on the space program and the astronauts,
as was the great movie of 'The Right Stuff' (which also starred Ed
Harris); instead, 'Apollo 13' is a simple, straightforward telling of
the events of the mission. But there's nothing simple about the impact
of the movie; this is an awesome achievement.
It's not just about the space program; it's about what we have lost,
not just America -- the film waves no flags -- but the whole world,
from the decline of the space program. The movie does not force this
viewpoint on us; it is inherent in the material, even though this
material is about a space mission that didn't succeed. When I was
child, I was crazy about science fiction and the prospect of travel in
space; if someone had told me then that after we reached the Moon, we
stopped going there, I simply would not have believed them. It's the
greatest adventure in the history of Mankind; how could we stop going?
But what neither I nor anyone else ever dreamed was that the Moon
missions would be so successful, so smoothly done, that by the time of
only the third mission, America and the world had become jaded so
swiftly -- Apollo 13 was launched 8 months after Neil Armstrong walked
on the Moon -- that not one of the three major networks carried even a
second of their telexast. Going to the Moon had become routine -- or so
we're told now. The real problem is that the three TV networks so
tightly controlled EVERYTHING that was telecast that they could simply
decide America was jaded. Enthusiasm for manned space exploration could
have been maintained by the networks, but it wouldn't have sold
toothpaste. So out with the greatest adventure in the history of
humanity, and on with sitcoms and cop shows.
But I still dream of looking at foreign stars, of making footprints
where no human being has ever been, of staring out into the blackness
of space, of simply seeing the Earth from the surface of the Moon. I
dream of these, even though I know they will never happen to me -- but
I dream and hope that someone will do this. 'Apollo 13' begins on July
20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. We
see Lovell in his back yard, covering the disc of the moon with his
thumb; later, as his crippled ship rounds the moon, he covers Earth
with his thumb. In some ways, it's the high point of 'Apollo 13;'
Lovell himself never went back into space, never stood on the Moon, but
in his dreams he did, and for a moment, we share his dreams, his
imagination and the thrill of wonder of being a space traveler.
Tom Hanks was inspired by appearing in this movie, and has become one
of the greatest proponents of manned space exploration anywhere, and a
great fan of America's space efforts. He produced that superb
miniseries 'From the Earth to the Moon,' and continues to speak on
behalf of astronauts and the space program.
Many of the weightless scenes in 'Apollo 13' were shot aboard planes
traveling a special parabola that created real weightlessness for
seconds at a time. It works fine, too, and was actually probably
simpler to do than to try to fake weightlessness the usual way, with a
lot of hidden wires. It's visually aamazing; you do never quite get
accustomed to seeing Hanks and the others drift by like dandelion fluff.
The special effects are excellent, a blend of model work and computer
graphics; the press kit heavily emphasizes that all of the Apollo 13
mission footage was created for the movie, and that no NASA or other
newsreel footage was used at any point. You could have fooled me,
which, of course, is the intent. Again, even though this is very
impressive, and makes the film dazzling and fresh to watch, it's not
what makes 'Apollo 13' so good.
Most of Ron Howard's previous movies, even the good ones like 'Cocoon,'
'Parenthood' and 'The Paper,' have had a tendency toward contrived,
standard-Hollywood plotting, even more noticeable in films like 'Gung
Ho,' 'Backdraft' and 'Far and Away.' Except for the briefest of
instances, there is none of that melodrama in 'Apollo 13,' even when it
could easily have been added.
The film captures the period and style of NASA perfectly: lots of
people smoke and no one objects, fashions look rather drab, especially
NASA workers, who seemed even then to be something from another planet,
with their narrow black ties, short-sleeved white shirts and buzz-cut
hair. But they were tough professionals, and some of them were the real
dreamers. At one point, the CO2 filters are overloaded, so round
filters designed for the capsule have to be fitted into the rectangular
holdings aboard the landing module where the astronauts have had to
move because of the accident. Back in Houston, a pile of miscellaneous
stuff is dumped onto a table: this is all the astronauts have to work
with, so the NASA workers have to kluge together something out of this
and nothing else. It's the best illustration in the film of the real
difficulty everyone faced.
The performances are beautiful -- understated, honest, direct. Even
Bill Paxton, who in the past has not only chewed scenery but devoured
it whole, is on the nose in his playing, not too much, not too little.
Kevin Bacon gives another of his thoughtful, realistic performances;
he's always good. Tom Hanks is the star of the film, and everything
relating to the astronauts is essentially from his point of view, but
he does not dominate the movie at all; he's merely the central figure.
If any actor holds the film together, it's really Ed Harris as Gene
Kranz, but that's because Kranz held the mission together. He had to
take everything in, assimilate and analyze it, and come back with an
instantaneous decision -- and it had to be right. Harris is absolutely
outstanding here; it's at once his least showy performance and his best
to date. He vanishes utterly into the role.
It's irritating that this well-produced DVD, complete with DTS sound,
has absolutely no extras at all; no trailer, no making-of documentary,
no commentary tracks (and this is a film that would greatly benefit
from them). Why Universal would put out such a bare-bones edition of
such an excellent movie is a mystery.
Naturally, since most of this story takes place in the spaceship and
what amounts to offices, there are few opportunities for room-shaking
audio theatrics. However, the launch sequence (chapter 13), the
malfunction (chapter 19 -- "Houston, we have a problem"), and the
re-entry (chapter 52) make the most of the DTS sound.
Even though this is such a bare-bones disc, the movie itself is so very
fine that this is a good purchase for anyone even remotely interested
in Ron Howard, Tom Hanks or the space program. This and 'The Right
Stuff' are the best movies ever made on the subject.
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||36-inch Sony XBR