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It had been less than a year since man first walked on the moon, but as far as the American public was concerned, Apollo 13 was just another "routine" space flight- until these words pierced the immense void of space: "Houston, we have a problem." Stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft, astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert fight a desperate battle to survive. Meanwhile, at Mission Control, astronaut Ken Mattingly, flight director Gene Kranz and a heroic ground crew race against time-and the odds- to bring them home.
For more about Apollo 13 and the Apollo 13 Blu-ray release, see Apollo 13 Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on April 9, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Bill Paxton, Kathleen Quinlan
Director: Ron Howard
» See full cast & crew
Apollo 13 Blu-ray Review
Triskaidekaphobics should probably stay away from this film, which gives us all ample reason to feel how unlucky the number 13 is.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, April 9, 2010
Though it's more than a little embarrassing for me to admit it, my grandmother was one of those vestiges of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who resolutely refused to believe we had actually landed on the moon. Now she wasn't technologically savvy enough to elaborate long scenarios of a super secret New Jersey television studio where countless millions were duped into believing Man had taken its first small step onto our nearest satellite. Hers was a kinder, simpler reaction that quite simply decided that it was impossible to fly to the moon, and that was that. Unfortunately she had slipped into the early stages of Alzheimer's by the time Apollo 13 made its fated flight, one fraught with more mishaps and danger than probably any other launch in the relatively early years of the United States' space program, and so I'm unsure what she would have made out of a nation gripped by the encroaching panic that three of its astronaut heroes might be, to borrow the title of a rather interestingly synchronistically named contemporary film of the time, Marooned, left to die a slow, painful death in the cold shell of a capsule disabled by an improbable series of events.
It's a well known fact that many hotels and even office buildings routinely renumber their thirteenth story as fourteen in order to prevent the superstitious from being afraid to get off the elevator at that point. Of course, NASA didn't have that option with Apollo 13, though, as the film Apollo 13 makes clear in one of its amusing sidebars, it may not have even thought about it as spaceflight had become so supposedly passé at that point that some television stations refused to even carry coverage of the event. This becomes all the more incredible when we look back on what seems to be almost Stone Age technology with which Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) soared into space and almost--almost--made yet another moon landing. 2009 saw a glut of quite excellent releases surrounding Man's first lunar landing forty years previously, but it's rather alarming to see how blasé the world was a mere year or so later when Apollo 13 wafted skyward on what would become a nightmare journey.
There's probably no more unlikely Hollywood directorial icon of the past quarter century or so than Ron Howard, television's beloved Opie and Richie who has fashioned a rather remarkable oeuvre of fairly disparate film projects. In 1995, when Apollo 13 was originally released, he was still largely seen as a very talented, but perhaps less than really noteworthy, director of frothy comedies like Splash and Night Shift. If he had started to make his presence felt more keenly with the lovely fantasy Willow, or the more nuanced comedy-drama Parenthood, his "epics" (for wont of a better word) like Backdraft and Far and Away had as many naysayers as proponents. And so people were largely unprepared for the totally masterful job Howard achieved with Apollo 13, a film that could have easily veered into melodrama and overacting. One of the major saving graces in fact of the film is the inerrantly understated performances, especially by Hanks as Lovell and the exquisite Katheen Quinlan (who received a well deserved Oscar nomination) as his wife, Marilyn.
If the emotional gist of the film is built largely around a couple who spend a really small amount of screen time together (something that in and of itself is noteworthy), Apollo 13 is filled to the brim with an assortment of stellar turns from everyone including Ed Harris (another Oscar nominee for this film) as overwhelmed Flight Director Gene Kranz to Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly, the astronaut originally scheduled in Swigert's place whose exposure to the measles kept him earthbound, paving the way for his assistance in figuring out how to get his three buddies back safely. Apollo 13 is filled with so many wonderful moments from all of these actors, as well as the on-board trio of Hanks, Paxton and Bacon, that it becomes a textbook example of fine ensemble acting. There are no "star turns" here, and indeed almost throwaway moments like Quinlan losing her wedding ring down a drain become emotionally devastating simply because we have become so invested in the characters without being given "acting lessons" by the performers.
Howard manages to maintain several simultaneous story arcs effortlessly throughout the film, ping ponging between the astronaut trio's ordeal on board a crippled and freezing spacecraft, Mission Control's increasingly desperate attempts to figure out a way to get them back, and the home life of the astronauts' spouses, chiefly Marilyn Lovell. While there is no lack of technical specificity throughout William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert's screenplay (adapted from a book co-written by Lovell), the film is never weighed down by "tech speak," again because when it's delivered, it's being done by characters the audience has grown to know and be involved with as human beings, people who just happen to be shooting other people into space atop massive tubes of flame. Aiding and abetting the uniformly fine performances is a spot on production design, which perfectly recreates the feel of both the claustrophobic spacecraft and lunar module, but more importantly the sort of stifling atmosphere of early 70's Texas.
Apollo 13 does evidently veer from the historical record to make an occasional dramatic point. Astronauts are famously tamped down emotionally, and the screenwriters and Howard wisely amped up the conflict and ostensible tension as the crippled craft threatens to slowly kill Lovell, Haise and Swigert. But the brief, if volatile, temper tantrums seem somehow very "right" in the dramatic framework of this retelling, and certainly never devolve into mere histrionic rants made for Oscar consideration. This is one of Hanks' most appealingly low key performances, one grounded in that sort of calm assurance that one always hopes to hear from your in flight Captain aboard a transcontinental airplane ride. It makes for a fascinating, and absolutely riveting, dichotomy in that these three can maintain such an aura of cool when everything around them seems to be going horribly, horribly wrong.
There's a long list of 'thirteens' that those with an irrational fear of the number have assembled vis a vis this flight, cobbled together to "prove" the number is unlucky. Obviously, it was Apollo 13, but launch time on April 11, 1970 was (in military parlance) 13:13, and it was two days later, on the thirteenth of April that events started cascading leaving the spacecraft hobbled. All of this may come under the heading of "you see what you want to see," but the undeniable fact is this was one of the most dramatic episodes in Man's attempts to explore beyond his own planet, and against all odds, it was one which ended happily. Howard's film remains a fitting testament to the fortitude of individual men's (and women's) wills, as well as the collective spirit of Mankind itself. Apollo 13 set Howard up as a director truly to be reckoned with, and now fifteen years on, that assessment seems as sure as Lovell's own temperament.
Apollo 13 Blu-ray, Video Quality
Apollo 13 blasts onto Blu-ray with a decent, if not overwhelmingly excellent, AVC encoded 1080p image with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This is most certainly a step up from the previously released Special Edition standard def DVD, but it's still plagued by inconsistent levels of detail and an unappealing softness at least some of the time. In the space sequences things are mostly excellent, with deep and rich black levels and brilliant contrast. Detail here can be exceptional, with every scratch inside the capsule clearly visible and the encroaching frost seeming to almost grow before the viewer's very eyes. Aside from some of the wacky 70's fashions worn by the women, there isn't a lot of color here, and in fact the palette seems deliberately muted in order to maintain focus on the emotional content of the film. Flesh tones are lifelike and what color there is is nicely saturated. Depth of field is good to excellent throughout the feature. We do get a few instances of moire patterns and aliasing on some of the more finely textured apparel and other scrimshaw patterns on the sets, but they're very fleeting.
Apollo 13 Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Apollo 13's DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix toddles along rather uneventfully for the first act of the film and may lead some listeners to feel it's more than a bit underwhelming. Even in these dialogue heavy sequences, however, we're treated to sterling clarity and precise fidelity. Once blast off occurs, however, we're finally immersed in some wonderful surround activity, and the space sequences are similarly filled with some excellent foley effects which dart to and fro and give a good approximation of what being in an enclosed capsule must be like. Dialogue throughout the film is handled excellently, with some really finely nuanced differences between "open air" speech and that delivered from within the confines of a spacesuit. James Horner's wonderful score also fills the surround channels with some of his most expansive music. There are no anomalies of any kind to report on this soundtrack. This is a very intimate "epic" film, and so may not provide the nonstop, slam bang surround activity that contemporary audiences may have come to expect, but it is an excellent piece in and of itself.
Apollo 13 Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
A nice array of extras, most ported over from the previously released HD-DVD and/or Special Edition SD-DVD, supplement this release. They include:
Apollo 13 Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Houston, there's absolutely no problem whatsoever with this wonderful film, which still holds up quite admirably a decade and a half after its release. Viscerally exciting, compelling and unexpectedly touching for such a tech-heavy film, it offers wonderfully restrained performances and the sure directorial hand of Ron Howard.
Apollo 13: Other Editions
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