Tom Hanks latest historical endeavor is the excellent HBO miniseries "Pacific." However, the beloved actor has been involved with other historical productions in his long career and one of the more memorable stops was the 1995 film "Apollo 13" that was directed by Ron Howard and produced by Brian Grazer. This fifteenth anniversary release of the film on Blu-ray is not the high definition debut of the film, as it was released a few years back on the now-defunct HD-DVD format. "Apollo 13" was meant to be entertainment and is not fully historically accurate. There are artistic freedoms. There are over dramatizations. But even after its release more than fifteen years ago and with its latest revival on Blu-ray, "Apollo 13" is an important film. Those of us in our twenties and thirties can be educated about the events of the Apollo 13 mission and this film can serve as record for many more twenty years down the road. We are reminded of the heroics and the danger of those missions by the Ron Howard and Tom Hanks collaboration.
Tom Hanks portrays astronaut Jim Lovell. Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan and Ed Harris join this ensemble cast as other key members of the Apollo 13 retelling. Paxton takes the role of Fred Haise and joining them in the LM is Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert. Kathleen Quinlan portrays Marilyn Lovell. Gary Sinise assumes the role of grounded astronaut Ken Mattingly and Ed Harris is brilliant as always as Gene Kranz. Working with the Lovell´s, Hanks does a good job of portraying Jim Lovell. He and Ron Howard have a wonderful chemistry and a Hanks/Howard film is almost guaranteed to be good. Paxton, Sinise and Harris are among my favorite actors. I remember being thrilled to see them together in one picture. Paxton and Sinise are solid actors that embody the American persona. I´d watch a two hour film about Ed Harris reading "Encyclopedia Brown" stories. He is brilliant as Gene Kranz and looks really good with hair. Kevin Bacon is, well, Kevin Bacon. His performance is good, but I just view the character as "Kevin Bacon" and not Jack Swigert. I really can´t tell you exactly why, but it is hard to buy into his character.
For those unfamiliar with the story of "Apollo 13," on April 13th, 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise had completed a non-broadcasted television relay from their moon-bound spaceship when Mission Control asked them to stir their cryo tanks. Swigert´s words were restated by Jim Lovell. "Houston, we´ve had a problem." The cryo tank stirring caused an explosion and the Apollo 13 craft was crippled. Their trip to the moon was scrapped and now Mission Control was faced with an impossible task – the crew lacked the clean oxygen and power for the return trip home. They had to engineer some solutions with lightning speed and perfect precision to bring the crippled craft and her three astronauts home. The television networks deemed the initial broadcast not eventful enough to televise, but with the crew facing almost certain death, it became the only story on television.
Lovell, Haise and Swigert held their calm. In fact, some of the liberties taken with the story was an outburst by Hanks´ portrayed Lovell. This was done to ´spice-up´ the story and the truth is that the three men were so stoic during this crisis, that it would have made for a boring story. Amazing how they were able to keep their calm the entire time. Down on the ground, Gene Kranz was scrambling to get every problem solved and lead Mission Control to bring Apollo 13 home. Ed Harris is brilliant here. The inspiration for Harris came from watching a clip taken of Gene Kranz years later where he teared up when remembering the events of Apollo 13. Some of the problems that needed solved was the air scrubbers for the Landing Module were shaped differently than that of the capsule. A solution needed found to fit the square filter into a round hole. It was solved. The module did not have enough power to land. A solution needed to be found to bring the computers back up without draining all remaining power. Many other issues threatened the plight of the Apollo spacecraft and somehow, they were all resolved. Somehow, the crew returned home.
"Apollo 13" is not a great film, but it is a good film. With an incredible cast and an attention to detail, the film honors the men whose story it tells. A large number of scenes were filmed on NASA´s "Vomit Comet," a C-135 aircraft that has been modified to help test weightlessness. The aircraft flies in a parabolic pattern and routinely dives to earth to allow its passengers a freefall state where weightlessness is simulated. Ron Howard states that he is not sure of how the film would have turned out if they had used wires. Not many actors would submit themselves to hours upon hours on the "Vomit Comet" to make a film. Somewhere between 500 and 600 parabolics were made during a period of 13 days.
It is important to remember that it is a film. A lot of artistic freedoms were made. Hanks states "Houston, we have a problem." Swigert says "Okay Houston, we´ve had a problem here" and Lovell restated "Houston, we´ve had a problem." Ken Mattingly has a larger role in Ron Howard´s retelling of the story than he had in real life. Do these inaccuracies really make a difference? No. This is a film based upon the Apollo 13 story. It is not a documentary about the Apollo 13. Ron Howard has created a good film that pays homage to the men and women whose lives were affected by the aborted trip to the moon. He made what choices he thought would make for an entertaining picture. You get a very good idea of what effort and emotion went into the crisis. Now on the emerging Blu-ray format, you can revisit history and appreciate the film at a time when we are now getting ready to say goodbye to the Space Shuttle fleet.
Watching "Apollo 13" for the second time in high definition, the scene that really stood out was the re-entry of the frozen lunar craft. The water and condensation that is falling from the controls is incredibly detailed and looks amazing and reminded me of the beauty of high definition. This 2.35:1 framed film is an identical port of the previous VC-1 master and the film looks every bit as good as it ever has. Space sequences also look very good and show off solid detail and good black levels. Control room scenes appear a little grainier and softer, but the picture quality is generally very good. I noticed that whenever Ed Harris and company were on-screen, the picture wasn't quite as sharp, but the vistas of Earth and the moon more than make up for the few minutes of softness. This is a very clean looking transfer as well and pausing the film when the three astronauts examine the crippled craft shows how clean this film can look after fifteen years.
There are seven different audio tracks to select from and over a dozen and a half subtitles supported. A pop-up menu after the disc loads makes selecting the proper format easy, but this review centers on the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. I no longer have access to the HD-DVD disc for a direct comparison, but "Apollo 13" sounds very good with the newer sound format and the take off sequence and re-entry both are full of enveloping sound and very deep bass. Another key scene is when the mission to the moon turns tragic when the oxygen line explodes. Sound comes from every direction during the film, but the silence of space is also nicely presented. The multi-channel surround mix won't rival "Transformers" or other noisy action films, but I was easily pleased with what the disc has to offer. Dialogue is very good and the dying cassette player that was heard often times in the film was a good example of how clean this mix is.
The Blu-ray release is not a simple port of the previous HD-DVD release and "Apollo 13" has been updated to include a few new features. U-Control makes an appearance on the Blu-ray format and two interactive additions are included here to be enjoyed while watching the film. The Apollo Era features pop up graphical trivia nuggets about different news and events that occurred during the era of Apollo 13. This ranges from information about other space programs to the winners of the World Series. It is a nice inclusion and the Tech-Splantations feature can also be turned on and provides pop-up information pertaining to the technology that helped send man to the moon. BD-Live functionality is included to allow the viewer to access the BD-Live center for promotional clips and Social BLU includes Internet access to social media sites based on the film. D-Box Motion Enabled Code has also been included with the Blu-ray release.
The two commentary tracks return for this release and both are very nice. The first commentary track stars director Ron Howard and he offers a very nice commentary track. He talks through most of the film´s long running time and offers up a lot of good information. The second track features the real life Lovells, Jim and Marilyn. They offer an authentic recount of the true events and point out some of the artistic choices made by Ron Howard. Both tracks are a good listen and are have appeared on all previous versions of the film, which included multiple DVD releases and the previously mentioned HD-DVD release. Out of the two commentary tracks, I find myself enjoying the Lovell's track the most and now with Blu-ray you can turn on the U-Control features to have a very informative movie watching experience.
Three nice featurettes are included that are themed more around the historical Apollo 13 flight and less about the film. This begins with the long Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13 (58:06). This documentary features most of the principal players in the film and many of those that were involved in the actual crisis. The feature starts with Johnny Carson and never stops entertaining for the full hour. It is a nice historical documentary. Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond (48:26) is another good historical inclusion. Focusing on the history of the great space race between the cosmonauts and the astronauts, the documentary features many interviews about Apollo 13 and the space race. The shorter Lucky 13: The Astronauts Story (12:14) was an NBC Dateline feature first included on the Anniversary DVD release. This is a set of interviews from 1995 with the three Apollo 13 astronauts and includes a teary-eyed Gene Kranz. Jim Lovell discusses how he originally thought Kevin Costner would have been a good pick to portray him and this tie in to the film is short, but sweet.
Universal dips into their vault of titles and releases "Apollo 13" for yet another anniversary edition and this is arguably the best release of the film yet. The isolated music score, theatrical trailer and the IMAX version of the film are still missing in action, but some new U-Control features help make this disc an attractive upgrade over the older HD-DVD release. The previous high definition release was an early title for HD-DVD and Universal took their time with bringing it back out for Blu-ray. This is a movie that I have always enjoyed. It features some of my absolute favorite actors, all in one film. It is a wonderful look at the failed Apollo 13 moon mission and while it isn't fully authentic in its history, it tells a wonderful history and gets the main plot points correct. The film is filled with great performances and is still captivating, although everybody knows how the story turns out.