Apollo 13 is a fascinating drama, mixing in loads of content into a solid two hour timeframe. Ron Howard directs this Tom Hanks piece, based on the real event of a nearly doomed space shuttle flight to the moon. The dramatic twists are captivating cinema.
Superb screenwriter William Broyles handles the writing duties (and later another Tom Hanks starring film, Cast Away), translating the book of the same name. The film begins as a family drama, using the uncertainties of the flight, the pilot’s last chance to make a trip to the lunar surface, and general fear of disaster to its advantage. The opening set up feels like an eerie foreshadowing, particularly as Hanks discusses a prior disaster with his son.
On into space, an explosion on board the ship begins a series of increasing challenges that seem to have no end. On the ground, Howard takes the time to insert the lack of media interest until things turn towards the dangerous side, the stress level of the families, and ground controls frantic search for solutions in hope of bringing the three man crew home. All of this fits perfectly into the film, and keeps the visuals interesting as opposed to the emptiness of space.
While the majority of the technical dialogue is completely over the heads of the audience, it feels authentic. Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon are fantastic, particularly near the close as their situation becomes desperate. Blame is placed as oxygen is slowly replaced in the cabin by carbon dioxide, the temperature lowers to freezing levels, and power is reduced to zero. Uncertainty is maintained even if the real life events are familiar.
Ed Harris leads a ground control crew as they search for the means to bring the astronauts back to Earth alive. While minor in terms of character development, the experience of the control room is documentary-like in its feel. The stress is captured in a way that each new problem adds additional weight, even after solutions are discovered to prior issues.
Apollo 13 would go on to win two Academy Awards, while being nominated for additional seven. It’s deserving of them all. This is the way true stories are handled in film form, to satisfy those interested in the true events while crafting a compelling screen drama.
Apollo 13 hits HD with a high grain transfer. While much of it is hidden when in space, on the ground, every scene has noticeable problems. Color is strong, as are the black levels. Some compression can be found, especially in the reds. The scene in which Gary Sinise is told he’s not flying on the mission is particularly ugly. While overall sharp, this isn’t one for high detail. It’s hard to feel that you’re seeing everything on the special effects.
Thankfully, audio is brilliantly maintained. The rocket take off is the type of material you’ll find yourself watching repeatedly. It’s a sequence loaded with bass and surround use. The same goes for the disaster in space, with the ship groaning and thrashing about. Even the chaotic command room is easy to appreciate for its simplicity as papers are strewn about the sound field, people mumble behind the on-screen dialogue, and computers hum quietly.
Extras are carried over from the SD DVD special edition and make for excellent accompaniment to the film. Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13 is a nearly hour long documentary that discusses the events with interviews from all parties, from the filmmakers to those involved in the real events. Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond is a look at the past and future of space flight. It’s loaded with archival material and discussions on the future of traveling through space.
Lucky 13: The Astronauts Story is a Dateline piece from 1995 with the astronauts discussing the events in their own words. Ron Howard discusses the film in a commentary track. However, his is overshadowed by an engaging and informative commentary by Jim and Marilyn Lovell. Both discuss their involvement in the event, Marilyn from her point of view on the ground and Jim in space. It’s a must after viewing the film.
Contrary to popular belief, the famous line “Houston, we have a problem,” isn’t the actual quote. It was spoken twice during the real flight, once as “Okay Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” After command asked for confirmation, it’s spoken as “Ahh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Howard chose the famous quote “we have a problem” for the movie as it’s not past tense.