Universal // 1995 // 140 Minutes // Rated PG
Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience
Universal // 2002 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // April 25th, 2005
Houston, we have a problem.
In 1970, the world was glued to the travails facing a trio of astronauts on the American moon expedition Apollo 13. As they faced near-certain doom, it was only the combined ingenuity of the NASA control team and the astronauts themselves that averted one of the nation's biggest disasters in space. Ten years ago, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks brought the story of astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise and their harrowing seven days in space to the big screen. Now, a special two-disc anniversary edition hits the DVD market. Are you ready for liftoff?
The Apollo 13 mission is to be Jim Lovell's (Hanks, Saving Private Ryan) chance to finally walk on the moon. When the NASA big shots give him the clearance to embark with Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise, Ransom) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton, Twister) on a trip to the moon, he has seemingly attained his longtime goal.
Hiccups face the mission early, however, when Mattingly is prevented from taking off because of a medical concern. At the last minute, backup Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon, Wild Things) steps in. Now that the crew has been resolved, it is time for the trio to sojourn into the great beyond.
As Houston control closely monitors, under the auspices of flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris, The Rock), Apollo 13 launches. However, after a few routine checks, an explosion rocks the spacecraft. Suddenly, oxygen is venting into space, engines are damaged, and control is lost.
After a moment of stunned silence, the Houston crew is forced to reconfigure the mission; instead of landing on the moon, the sole objective is to return Lovell, Swigert, and Haise back to Earth safely. With the nation suddenly captive over the fate of these three men, it will take the combined efforts of a bunch of super-smart NASA guys with thick black plastic glasses and three brave, weightless men who pee in bags to sidestep a national tragedy.
Apollo 13 is a great movie. It succeeds not just because it does one thing well, but because a confluence of effective themes come together. Under the astute direction of Ron Howard, Apollo 13 became a space adventure more exciting and patriotic than such overproduced dreck as Armageddon -- and here's the kicker: It's all true!
That's the foremost reason the movie works: the naturally thrilling source material it draws on. All this stuff took place, and all the seemingly insurmountable problems facing NASA and the crew propel the suspense forward. Who knew problem solving could be so fun? And that's what drives Apollo 13: the unending supply of problems. It's literally one after the other for the doomed mission, and the forced resourcefulness all the NASA smartasses have to drum up makes for compelling stuff.
Which is where Howard's skillful direction comes in. He makes a couple of decisions in directing this film that really pay off. One, he intermingles bits of expository layman-speak with the technical jargon the scientists rattle off, to ground the audience and let them know what the heck is going on. His primary tool for this is the inclusion of newscasts, which adds realism to the film and its setting, as well as oft-needed clarification. Two, as he notes in his commentary track, Howard made the conscious decision to give equal time to the boys in control. And in my opinion, this is where the most compelling parts of the film lie. Anchored by a rock-solid performance by Ed Harris, the NASA storyline bristles with electricity as everyone is constantly running around, drawing on their chalkboards, doing arithmetic by hand, smoking, gaping, uttering profound phrases ("With all due respect, sir, I believe this will be our finest hour!"), having little doomsday conferences in the corner, smoking, sweating, and talking to Clint Howard.
Apollo 13 boasts a terrific cast. Hanks, as usual, is great, but Paxton and Bacon are just as good as his pod-mates. On the ground, Sinise is only outshone by Harris in NASA control. Bonus points go to Kathleen Quinlan as Jim Lovell's wife, Marilyn, who mixes both strength and gloom in the face of the impending tragedy.
Finally, for a movie that runs 20 minutes north of two hours, Apollo 13 zooms by. The crap hits the fan for Lovell and company at about the forty-minute mark, and from then on the movie does not let up; it is one of the brisker 140 minutes to be had in front of your television.
This two-disc, tenth-anniversary edition offers two versions of the movie. Disc one features the theatrical version, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Disc two includes the IMAX Experience version, which runs shorter (116 minutes, almost 30 minutes shorter than the theatrical, with much of the trimming happening in the beginning of the film); this version is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen and comes with both the Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS 5.1 mix.
Both transfers look fantastic. Details are sharp and detailed (almost too sharp; some of the CGI used for the launch scenes now looks too CGI) and colors are strong. The sound for both versions is aggressive as well, but DTS aficionados, of which I am one, will likely gravitate toward the latter. Discrete surround channels are pushed, and the bass booms with rocket scenes. James Horner's great score has never sounded better. While I would certainly recommend the theatrical version for those who have never seen the movie, the IMAX experience offers a leaner and meaner go-round with the Apollo 13 crew, and this will definitely be the version I pop into my DVD player from now on.
Surprisingly, the weakest part of the set is the bonus material. The stuff Universal included is certainly not bad, but compared to the superb technical presentation, it leaves a bit to be desired. Basically, the extras can be divided into two categories: featurettes and commentary tracks.
The featurettes are "Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13," "Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond," and "Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story." These three pieces are all well done and robust enough, but my main complaint is that they're fairly redundant. For Apollo 13 completists, it may be nice to have the same story told multiple times, but coupled with the film itself, the information is repetitive. "Conquering Space" -- my favorite -- takes more of an exhaustive look at the United States space program.
The best extra of the set is found in the commentary category, which features tracks from Ron Howard and Jim and Marilyn Lovell. Howard gives an insightful and substantial commentary, but it the Lovells' ruminations that strike gold. With Jim Lovell, you're getting the scoop straight from the man himself, and his encyclopedic knowledge about the event and the technical background makes a fantastic complement to the film. While Marilyn is certainly the more tight-lipped of the two, when she does speak it's usually moving; at one point she breaks down when watching a scene from the film.
A sharp, well-made film, Apollo 13 receives a very good two-disc treatment. Apollo 13: 10th Anniversary Widecreen Edition combines stunning audio and visual work with a handful of rewarding features. The IMAX experience version is an excellent addition.
You are cleared for go.
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Scales of Justice, Apollo 13
Perp Profile, Apollo 13
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Distinguishing Marks, Apollo 13
* Commentary Track by Director Ron Howard
* Commentary Track by Jim and Marilyn Lovell
* "Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13"
* "Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond"
* "Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story"
* Production Notes
Scales of Justice, Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience
Perp Profile, Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Distinguishing Marks, Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience
* NASA Apollo 13 Site