"That's three hours of boredom followed by seven seconds of sheer terror."
Ron Howard was 15 years old when Neil Armstrong stepped off the Apollo 11 space capsule onto the surface of the moon in 1969, and 16 during the Apollo 13 near-disaster the following year. Those events and the entire space race must have made a huge impression on any young boy of the time. Jumping ahead a quarter century, the former Richie Cunningham ascended from TV stardom to big-time Hollywood director, and when the script for a big-budget recreation of Jim Lovell's doomed space flight passed Howard's desk, it must have spoken directly to that teenage kid still inside him. The resulting film, simply titled Apollo 13, is directed with a boyish sense of wonder and enthusiasm that, as it turns out, is the source of both its populist appeal and its biggest artistic flaws.
I realize that I'm going against the grain here. Apollo 13 was a tremendous box office hit, a multiple Academy Award nominee, and remains beloved by millions of movie fans. Personally, the first time I saw it I hated it. Perhaps I've mellowed a bit in the ensuing years, as this latest viewing didn't stir up quite as much bile in me as it once did, but I still have trouble seeing the greatness in it that others do. The film is, in my estimation, a competent and at times somewhat exciting piece of Hollywood claptrap, marred by Howard's mushy sentimentality, simplistic sense of dramatic formula, and the knowledge that the project could have been handled so much better in a more serious filmmaker's hands.
The problems with the movie can be perfectly summed up in one small but crucial detail that most viewers don't notice, and most of those who do forgive more easily than I can. After the dramatic launch of the Apollo 13 rocket, re-enacted with impressive (if a little dated) visual effects that emulate familiar NASA footage, the spacecraft soars through the atmosphere into the void of space. WHOOSH!!, it flies by the camera. KA-POWW!!, the explosive charges detonate to sever the booster stage from the command section. ZOOOMMM!!!, the capsule zips past us on the way to the moon...
Think about this for a second.
Any 8th grader can tell you that sound doesn't travel in the vacuum of outer space, but apparently little Ronny's tutors on the Andy Griffith Show set must have skipped that lesson.
Yeah, I know, it's a movie. Sound effects are added to make it more exciting. I've been told that by a thousand apologists. Frankly, I have no problem with sound in outer space, or artificial gravity, or force fields and faster-than-light travel, or any other sort of ridiculous nonsense in direct violation of the laws of physics when I see them in a Star Wars or Star Trek movie. Those pictures are fantasy. They don't have to be realistic. Apollo 13, on the other hand, isn't supposed to be fantasy. It's supposed to be a docudrama about the real space program and the true-life events lived by actual people.
So much for that. What we get instead resembles a child playing with his toy model spaceships, holding them over his head and muttering cartoon noises under his breath. KA-BOOM!! ZAM!!! ZOWIEE!! Most people aren't bothered by this, but I find it unforgivable. This is an inherently compelling true story that, if directed with a little more maturity, intelligence, and respect, could have been a truly great motion picture instead of just a sort-of-OK one.
Since Howard is a magna cum laude graduate of the Spielberg School of Schmaltz, the movie also drips with thickly layered muzak smothered over every important scene telling us how to feel. Cribbing one of his idol's signature moves, the director cuts away to reaction shots of anonymous background characters looking on in awe anytime something momentous happens, frustratingly cutting short our own view of the event we're supposed to care about. These are the amateurish theatrics of a director who doesn't trust the internal dynamics of a scene to keep the audience interested without him prodding them along to the emotion that the script says is supposed to be there.
It's a shame, really, because the film has a number of good elements struggling to transcend the execution. As mentioned, the story itself is a fascinating slice of history, rife with drama and suspense. How amazing is it that human beings ever made it into outer space at all in such glorified tin cans, much less that they could survive an ordeal like this one? It's also nice every once in a while to see a movie about dedicated professionals working at the top of their games to bring out the best in one another. The film's best scenes are those in which the Mission Control ground crew gather together the exact limited resources that the astronauts would have and try to MacGyver improvised solutions to the crew's life-threatening problems. The capable cast of actors (Ed Harris, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Sinise among them) really seem to believe in the material and deliver fine performances. And of course there's Little Tommy Oscar (as my wife and I refer to Tom Hanks) doing his patented Everyman thing that audiences seem to really like, even if it does nothing for me.
I don't expect that mine is a popular opinion. People the world over adore this movie. Unfortunately, Apollo 13 still doesn't do it for me, even though I was disliking it a little less now that some time has passed. What bothers me the most is that it isn't an outright bad movie that's easy to hate. It's just a mediocre one, neither as terrible as it could have been nor as good as it thinks it is.
The HD DVD:
Apollo 13 debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc specifically contains an optional DVD layer for Standard Definition playback) or in a Blu-Ray player.
Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Apollo 13 HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. Since HD is natively 16:9 in shape, the HD DVD format does not require anamorphic enhancement as used on DVD.
The HD transfer is a bit schizophrenic. The picture is usually crisp and detailed, despite the sometimes gauzy photography, and the garish 1960s color palette is reproduced in all its vibrant glory. Certain scenes, especially those inside the space capsule, are razor sharp and crystal clear. Fine details such as stubble on the astronauts' faces after a few days in space stand out in stark clarity. Other scenes, however, are frequently grainy. I don't have any objection to actual film grain, but the grain in this picture is often very noisy and electronic-looking. For the most part, it's a fine, film-like image and is at times really quite stunning, with the one significant caveat that the noisy grain can be distracting. Other HD DVD releases have done a better job rendering photographic grain in a more natural fashion.
The Apollo 13 HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format, which offers higher bit rates than available with traditional Dolby Digital audio found on DVD.
Apollo 13 was issued a few times on the DVD format, in both Dolby Digital and DTS audio options. I don't have those discs to compare, but am told that the DTS DVD edition has the best sound quality. The DD+ track on this HD DVD is a strong mix with well-integrated bass and surround activity that works effectively with the visuals without seeming too showy. Sound effects are crisply delivered and dialogue always remains clear and intelligible. I don't have any major complaints, yet the soundtrack also didn't bowl me over. The launch sequence didn't punch me in the gut the way I expected, and that left me a little disappointed. Nonetheless, this is a good-sounding disc, if not necessarily reference quality.
French and Spanish dub tracks are also available in DD+ 5.1. Subtitle options include English captions for the hearing impaired, Spanish, or French.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. Future releases may offer more advanced features.
All of the supplements from the 2-Disc Anniversary Edition DVD appear to have carried over, except for the truncated IMAX version of the movie. Who needs that anyway?
No interactive features have been included.
- Audio commentary by Ron Howard. The director demonstrates his enthusiasm for the project while admitting that, "I was about a C student when it came to science." No big shock there, Opie.
- Audio commentary by Jim and Marilyn Lovell. There's a bit too much play-by-play in this track, and Marilyn speaks very little, but this is certainly a fascinating discussion of the film's historical accuracy as told by the man who lived the events.
- Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13 (1 hr). A very good making-of documentary covering many interesting aspects of production, including what it was like to shoot in the "Vomit Comet" zero-gravity jet and how many of the visual effects were achieved. Much footage of the real event is also shown.
- Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond (48 min). A somewhat hokey but relatively informative TV special that provides a beginner's overview of the space race.
- Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story (12 min). A segment of the Dateline newsmagazine obviously produced as a tie-in to the movie. There's nothing in this featurette that can't be learned from the movie itself, unfortunately.
I still don't love the movie, but Apollo 13 is a crowd-pleaser with plenty of fans. The HD DVD offers pretty good picture, sound, and bonus features. I'll give it a mild recommendation, with the understanding that for many people it will rate highly recommended.
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