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Blu-ray Review: Apollo 13 (15th Anniversary Edition)

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There is just something about outer space.  It has captured the human consciousness in an amazing way, and although our repeated trips to space seem to garner less and less attention, the notion of actually taking a trip to space remains a wondrous fantasy for many.  Perhaps no film in recent memory has helped us conceive of the real life excitement and danger of travelling to space than Ron Howard's 1995 epic, Apollo 13.  Based on a true story, and the non-fiction book by astronaut Jim Lovell who lived the story, Apollo 13 finds Tom Hanks playing the role of Lovell.  It was Lovell who was in command of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

Howard's film doesn't center itself on the cause of the issue (although it is mentioned briefly at the end of the movie), but rather the outgrowth of the rupture of one of the oxygen tanks.  The causes take a backseat to the real issue at hand – how to get the astronauts home.  It makes for a film which, despite the outcome being known (Lovell is credited during the opening titles), still manages to be an edge-of-your seat thriller. 

Although Tom Hanks was not nominated for an Oscar for this role – he had just won back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump – he gives a spectacular performance as Lovell, and which very likely ought to have garnered him a nomination at minimum.  Somehow, within a small metal box, Hanks is able to express wonder and amazement at where he is, as well as momentary terror about what has befallen them.  Even fearful, however, Hanks' Lovell remains in control of his crew, even if he cannot control his situation.

Hanks isn't the only person to give a wonderful performance in the film.  Joining Lovell in space are Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).  Both Bacon and Paxton deliver exceptional performances, even if, in some of Haise's more fearful moments, he does come off sounding an awful lot like Pvt. Hudson in Aliens. Bacon's Swigert, who was not actually meant to be a part of the team, is the man who executed the fateful command to stir the oxygen tanks, which is what caused the explosion.  As someone who wasn't supposed to be onboard the ship anyway, someone who hadn't been training for an extended period of time with Lovell and Haise, Swigert was the odd man out on the ship at takeoff, a position that only becomes harder after the explosion.  Bacon does an excellent job at portraying the myriad emotions Swigert had to be feeling at the time – everything from joy at his first trip into space to horrific guilt at the thought that maybe, just maybe, he had done something wrong.

The control center characters on the ground in Houston, led by Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the man Swigert replaced are perhaps an even more fascinating group than the actual crew of Apollo 13.  The ceaseless working, the incredible ingenuity they display at doing everything from reworking a startup sequence for landing the ship for landing to engineering makeshift carbon dioxide scrubbers is nothing less than mesmerizing.  Although it may be Lovell, Haise, and Swigert who are best remembered for their role in the Apollo 13 mission, as Lovell says in the beginning of the film – the astronauts were just the most visible in a large group of hugely dedicated individuals who made spaceflight possible. 

Kathleen Quinlan, who plays Marilyn Lovell, Jim's wife, was, with Ed Harris, nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the film.  Apollo 13 really takes places in three different spaces – outer space, the control center in Houston, and the Lovell's home.  In charge of this third area, Marilyn is tasked with holding her family together, helping her mother-in-law understand what's happening without worrying, and trying to deal with her own personal feelings resulting from the accident.  A nearly impossible task, Marilyn somehow manages to hold it all together, and while Quinlan doesn't make it look easy, she does make it appear believable and natural.

The 15th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Apollo 13 (timed to come out the same week as the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 flight) sounds absolutely fantastic.  The audio is crisp and clear, and places you perfectly within the various arenas in which the film takes place.  While much of the film is dialogue heavy, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack really gets a chance to show what it can do on several occasions, most notably takeoff, which sounds – and feels with the bass rumble – fantastic.  James Horner's Oscar-nominated score is, as with the film itself at turns haunting, thrilling, and emotional.  The visuals are not quite as good as the sound.  One won't find anything to complain about in terms of black levels, colors, and detail, but there are the occasional moments where it appears as though there is a little bit of dirt or digital noise present.  The look is a very grainy one, but truly helps place the film in its 1970 time period.

This new release contains three different documentaries:  "Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13," "Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond," and "Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story."  The second of these pieces focuses itself on the space race in general rather than the flight of Apollo 13 specifically, that is left to the first and third documentaries.  "Lost Moon," while it does deal with the historical situation centers itself far more on the making on the movie, whereas "Lucky 13" is more about the reality of what took place.  All of them are really interesting, well put together looks at a moment in time (whether that moment is the flight or the making of the film).  The film also contains an audio commentary by Ron Howard and one by Jim and Marilyn Lovell.  Other releases of the film have contained more in terms of behind-the-scenes moments however, and it is odd that those other featurettes were not included with this release.

It must also be noted that the Blu-ray has exceptionally long load times, it took more than three minutes every time the disc was started to actually get to the main menu (and that is skipping the trailer that runs before the menu).  Upon starting the disc it insists on not only going out to the internet to download a current trailer before loading the film, but then also requires you to select the language you want the menus in every single time you load the disc.  Between that and Universal's insistence on advertising other films via their menu screen ticker, one gets the impression that it won't be too long before they work out how to interrupt the film in the middle to play a trailer or two.

Questions on the particulars of Universal's policy regarding bonus features and loading aside, Apollo 13 is a great movie and one that looks and sounds quite good in high definition.  It features some impressive sequences filmed in a zero gravity plane, scenes which couldn't have been easy to create.  It is a film which rekindles everyone's childhood dream of being in space, and tells the fantastic but true story (with a few moments of dramatic license) of a moment where we turned potential tragedy into tremendous triumph.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
  • http://saharsreviews.wordpress.com Sahar

    I can’t believe it’s been 15 years since this movie was released! I remember begging anyone in my family to go see it again and again, because like you said, there is just ::something:: about space. Great review – I can’t wait to get my hands on this Blu Ray ;)

  • Eric

    I was excited to get the new Apollo 13 on blu-ray which shipped to me yesterday from Amazon. Imagine my great disappointment when it wouldn’t play! My player has the latest updates, but after I plugged in the CD and waited, the menu never displayed. The menu screen with music and swirling images showed up, but the menu items (play, setup, special features, etc) never displayed. I tried multiple times with the different languages but it never work. So, I returned it back to Amazon. So sad!

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