By: Erik Swift
Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” is a solid film that is a great example of agreement between art and commerce. The last of the Tom Hanks blockbusters that saturated the global box office between 1992-1995, it’s also the best of them. Based on the ill-fated space mission and Astronaut Jim Lovell’s book “Lost Moon,” non-fiction films rarely get more gripping. Released in time for the film’s tenth anniversary, Universal Pictures’ deluxe double-disc DVD set provides a deep look at one of the most important, educational and entertaining American films of the last decade. Not one but two versions of the film pop up, the first being the familiar theatrical cut while the second is the shorter IMAX cut.
By April 1970, NASA’s space program and its moon missions were becoming as numbingly automatic as UCLA knocking off opponents in the NCAA basketball tournament (which the school had done the previous month for a fourth straight year). After the historic Apollo XI and its successor Apollo XII, Astronauts Lovell (Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and recent addition Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) comprise the team leading a third moon-landing attempt. For them, their dreams were coming true. For the rest of the country, filing taxes, baseball’s Opening Day or doing spring-cleaning was more important. Quickly, the junket goes horribly wrong after an explosion starts draining oxygen. Over 200,000 miles from home, the three concede their trip of exploration and discovery has turned into one they may never return from. Led by Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), Mission Control proceeds to work every possible angle to get the trio back to Earth in a pulse-pounding rescue attempt.
Thanks in large to director Ron Howard’s startling attention to detail, the film is a solid interpretation of one of America’s proudest moments. Any scene in Mission Control is electric – try to name another movie when a bunch of middle-aged average guys on ancient computers are this exciting. “Apollo 13” stands apart from the director’s canon because it is here that his experience behind the lens for more technical works (“Willow,” “Backdraft”) gel with the character-driven pieces he is known for (“The Paper,” “Parenthood”). The successful result is a high-class production based on real people that audiences actually care about, and cooperation between NASA and Hollywood makes this that much better. The best historical epics retain viewers, and “Apollo 13” is difficult to turn away from.
Despite this the Oscars were tough on “Apollo 13.” Howard, winning the DGA award but somehow never nominated for Best Director, saw his film win two of its nine categories (for editing and sound) while Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” dominated. That must have made for an interesting week on the set of Howard’s “Ransom”…which starred Gibson. The best supporting actor statue went to Kevin Spacey for his role in “The Usual Suspects,” seen as a huge upset over the favored Harris and Brad Pitt (for “12 Monkeys”). Time has proven the Academy’s choice correct there, but while Harris has gone 0-4 on Hollywood’s biggest night, Howard scored a pair in 2001 for directing and producing “A Beautiful Mind.” Still, outside of Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham, “Apollo 13” is what many think of when the name Ron Howard arises.
For a tenth anniversary package, this is good stuff. The transition from the 2002 DVD edition is mostly complete: commentaries from Howard and Jim and Marilyn Lovell are here, as is the 1996 “Lost Moon” documentary that shows how to make a classic (and truly replicate weightlessness). The bonus disc is where the new additions appear. “Conquering Space: The Moon And Beyond” is a 48-minute 2003 documentary that provides an interesting yet general view of NASA’s history, and “Lucky 13: The Astronaut’s Story,” is a 12-minute piece that originally appeared on “Dateline NBC” just after the film’s release. What’s really gorgeous to watch is the IMAX version of the film; it streamlines the fluff, dropping 24 minutes (mostly Kathleen Quinlan’s footage) and makes a taut story tighter. When comparing the two, IMAX easily comes out on top. Just watch the aerial shot over the vehicle assembly building at Cape Kennedy. It looks majestic, especially in 16×9. 4×3 doesn’t do “Apollo 13” justice, not with a new digital transfer. There isn’t much more to be done with this film, so if a 15th anniversary package appears, be wary. Rent this only if the 2002 disc is still in the DVD player, but for anyone who doesn’t own it yet..