FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON - DVD review

With this new "Signature Edition", HBO has elevated "From The Earth To The Moon" from not only essential viewing but to a potential must-have in everyone's DVD collection.

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If you could name two of the most important contributions that Tom Hanks did for television (I'm sorry but "Bosom Buddies" does not count), I'm quite sure that they would be the two critically acclaimed HBO miniseries "From The Earth To The Moon" (1998) and "Band of Brothers" (2001). Hanks not only executive produced both these efforts but helped direct and write as well. That both miniseries followed a similar path that led to their creation and eventual success is not really a coincidence at all. Whether their existence were driven by Hank's patriotic activism or just his passionate desire as an artist to create television masterpieces, these two HBO shows did come right on the heels of Hank's own personal participation in the award-winning films "Apollo 13" and "Saving Private Ryan".

Both motion pictures, although semi-epic in scale, only dealt with very brief but important periods in events--one the astonishing technological push to send a man to the moon and the other to defeat tyranny in the European theater during World War 2--that helped cement their respective places in American history. While these films raised public awareness for these two historical events, the hunger for a definitive telling of more stories from many of the unsung heroes remain insatiable and continued to elude both historical and film buffs. The resulting two HBO miniseries that followed each film thereafter was Hank's answer to those calls. By using the multi-hour miniseries format, both shows are able to significantly open up the scope of those historical events and bring the important lessons of history to a whole new generation that might not have known or able to grasp the many, many sacrifices so many ordinary people made for their country during those turbulent times.

HBO first released "From The Earth To The Moon" on DVD back in 2000 and it was an impressive must-have 4-DVD set back then. Fast-forward five years and HBO is now re-releasing this miniseries, repackaging it as "From The Earth To The Moon: The Signature Edition". So what else could HBO do to improve upon an already good DVD edition of this miniseries? Well, for one thing, and this is probably the most important for all you movie enthusiasts out there, the video presentation has been upgraded from its original fullscreen pan and scan (1.33:1) to an anamorphic widescreen presentation with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Also included is a new DTS 5.1 audio track to go along with the Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. The twelve episodes of the miniseries are now evenly spread out over four DVDs (3 episodes on each DVD) with an entire disc set aside just for the bonus material (making this new edition a 5-DVD set). In the previous release, four one-hour episodes were squeezed into each DVD, resulting in some loss of information, which probably compromised the quality of the video as well. I do not have the old release to compare with this new one but just the fact that the video is now in anamorphic widescreen and each DVD is limited to just three episodes, there is no doubt that this new edition should come out on top when doing a direct visual comparison between the two.

The time period between the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s was a challenging time for America's fledgling space program. Stung by the success of the Soviet Union in sending the first man into space in 1961, American technological pride was on the line and fears of a "Red Moon" (a moon conquered by the communist Soviets) began to permeate through the American political establishment and also NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). The launch of Freedom 7 that sent Alan Shepard into orbit around the Earth was by and large a knee jerk reaction to Yuri Gagarin's earlier flight. While orbiting the planet was a great achievement by itself, everyone at NASA knew that a bigger and more dangerous task awaited them. Later that same year, the late President Kennedy dramatically proposed an ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the moon and back by the end of the decade, thus setting into motion the much talked about space race with the Soviets. It was a monumental task that involved the combined efforts of hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of companies all across the nation, working together to overcome myriad obstacles and make the once-impossible dream of landing a man on the moon a reality.

Although the primary focus of "From The Earth To The Moon" is on the Apollo space missions, the opening episode, in the space of one hour, sets the stage for the race to the moon by first touching upon the pre-Apollo projects, Mercury and Gemini, and the recruitment of nine new astronauts--the New Nine--to complement the Original Seven (veteran astronauts from Mercury and Gemini). To reach the final objectives of the Apollo program, NASA laid out a set of incremental steps that has to be achieved before man is able to set foot on the lunar surface. These steps encompass the various missions that were carried out by the Mercury and Gemini programs, culminating in the historical Apollo 11 mission that finally landed on the moon.

This miniseries documents in great details the linear progression of the Apollo space program, highlighting the many low and high points of the project, including the Apollo 1 cockpit fire that tragically killed three astronauts, Apollo 11 which landed on the moon and the near-disasters of Gemini 8 and Apollo 13. Most importantly, it gives us a new and amazing perspective on the sacrifices of the people involved in these space programs throughout the years. Everyone knows who Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins are. Yet, without the courageous contributions of other astronauts like Frank Borman, James Lovell, James McDivitt, Russell Schweickart, Thomas Stafford, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Edward White and many others who came before them, Armstrong and his crew would never have had the opportunity to create history. And it is not just the astronauts who get top billing on this show. Obscure names like engineers Tom Dolan and John Houboult--whose once-outlandish proposal for something called lunar orbit rendezvous was eventually implemented successfully to land the lunar module on the moon--or Tom Kelly, the chief engineer from Grumman, a Long Island firm tasked with designing the lunar module, would otherwise be lost as just a footnote in history books if not for this show. Not to be forgotten are the sacrifices of the astronauts' wives, shown in the episode "The Original Wives' Club", who had to endure the deep anxiety of seeing their husbands strap themselves onto a rocket and blast into space and the pressures of all the unwanted media attention.

Appropriately, this 12-hour miniseries brings the stories of these unsung heroes and countless more who worked behind the scenes, to the fore. It creates a fitting legacy for those who worked so hard to restore America's pride in the space race. "From The Earth To The Moon" is an astounding achievement for a television miniseries, bringing forth both the emotional and physical toil that the space program demanded. The emotional aspect of the show was never so clear as in the episode "1968", which recounted the many national disasters (escalating war in Vietnam, rioting on campuses, the assassinations of Dr. King and RFK) that struck that year and culminating in the one bright spark that took place during the Christmas holidays--the successful Apollo 8 mission whose crew become the first men to orbit the moon. The episode ended on a very poignant and fitting note, with Michael Collins reading out a congratulatory telegram for the crew with the simple message, "You saved 1968."

The cast for this miniseries is enormous to say the least and I can't even begin to name them all. What I can say though is that there are no major stars on this show, just lots of faces that you probably recognize but just can't put a name to them. Even without any stars, the entire cast works like a well-oiled machine, delivering great performances all round. Just like the brave men and women they portray on screen, no one stands out and everyone contributes, which is an incredible achievement considering that big stars are usually brought in to helm a show and give it an air of credibility. "From The Earth To The Moon" certainly proves to me that with great writing, directing and editing, there is no need to rely on major movie stars to carry a show. A group of lesser-known but just as talented and committed thespians would do just as well.

The twelve episodes are evenly distributed among the following four DVDs:

Disc 1: "Can We Do This?", "Apollo One", "We Have Cleared The Tower"
Disc 2: "1968", "Spider", "Mare Tranquilatis"
Disc 3: "That's All There Is", "We Interrupt This Program", "For Miles And Miles"
Disc 4: "Galileo Was Right", "The Original Wives' Club", "Le Voyage Dans La Lune"

Video:
Like I mentioned earlier, this "Signature Edition" sports a brand new anamorphic widescreen video presentation, which replaces the old pan and scan one in the old DVD release. The images are clean and mostly devoid of any transfer errors or instances of dirt and scratches. Colors are also nicely saturated with natural-looking skin tones and appropriate color levels. Subtitle options include English, Spanish and French.

Audio:
New to this edition is a DTS 5.1 audio track, put in to complement the Dolby Digital 5.1 track. While I would not go into the nuances and advantages of one format over the other, the DTS one is, in my own opinion, more forceful and generally louder. However, both audio tracks do offer the same openness in the front sound field (especially during the soaring orchestral musical arrangements) and also the appropriate amounts of surround activity to go with short periods of booming bass. Overall, both 5.1 options offer the same amount of advantage over the lesser 2-channel options. Other audio tracks on this DVD set include Dolby Surround 2.0 in English, Spanish and French.

Extras:
Starting off this bonus material section are a pair of featurettes, the first is "Behind the Scenes: Making of ‘From The Earth To The Moon'" and the other is "Special Effects". The behind-the-scenes feature runs for almost 30 minutes and is quite an interesting documentary about the efforts that went into the making of the miniseries, showing the accurately recreated sets and interviewing the actors, directors, producers and many more. In "Special Effects" (runs for just a brief 4 minutes), we are brought through the various processes of creating the hundreds of visual effects shots of the spacecrafts and the surface of the moon, with the ultimate goal of making them look as authentic and as dramatic as possible.

In "Original Trailers", six different trailers are made available for your viewing. They are titled, "Destination Moon", "Emotion", "Rocket Science", "The Pitch", "Cowboys" and "Sure Hope I See You Again".

Next is "The Beginning of the Movement", where you can read the text of President Kennedy's speech to Congress on the national goal of sending a man to the moon and also listen to a short excerpt of that speech.

In "The Space Race Timeline", you can peruse and read the many events that happened on both sides (USA and USSR) of the space race, from 1957 to 1975.

"The History of the Moon" is yet another text-only feature that describes the many unique characteristics of the moon with pictures courtesy of NASA.

"Out of This Solar System" is a feature for the astronomy buffs, describing in some detail about the following: "Galaxies", "The Lives of Stars", "Supernova", "Pulsars", "Black Holes" and "Quasars".

Finally, "Famous Astronomers" lists down history's famous astronomers starting with Aristarchus (c. 310-230 BC) and ending with Eugene M. Shoemaker and describes their individual achievements.

Packaging:
The five DVDs are housed in an attractive 5-panel foldout box that fits inside an outer, more durable box. A booklet that lists a short synopsis of each of the twelve episodes and a ticket to the upcoming IMAX feature "Magnificent Desolation: Walking On The Moon 3D" are also included with the packaging.

Film Value:
Like the equally amazing HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" that came after it, "From The Earth To The Moon" is an incredible achievement in inspirational storytelling and historical correctness. It is able to capture with utmost respect and authenticity, the hopes, the joys, the fears and the sacrifices of the men and women from that era when mankind was taking baby steps on its journey to the moon. With this new "Signature Edition", HBO has elevated "From The Earth To The Moon" from not only essential viewing but to a potential must-have in everyone's DVD collection.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
7
Film Value
9