Judge Daniel Kelly has a problem. It's currently sitting in the trunk of his car, outside a motel.
Our reviews of Apollo 13 (published April 21st, 1999), Apollo 13: 10th Anniversary Edition (published April 25th, 2005), The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection (published November 25th, 2008), and Universal 100th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012) are also available.
Houston, we have a problem.
For the most part the directorial works of Ron Howard are toothless and forgettable, yet somehow the director has enjoyed an inexplicable amount of critical success. 2008's Frost/Nixon may have been a super motion picture, but the majority of Howard's oeuvre isn't worthy of its lofty status. However, amidst turkeys like The Da Vinci Code and EDtv, Howard did manage to provide the solid drama Apollo 13 in 1995. Based on true events from 1970, Apollo 13 tells the story of a group of astronauts stranded in space, and the effort it took to get them home.
Facts of the Case
Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks, Castaway), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon, Frost/Nixon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton, Aliens) are a group of astronauts about to embark on the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. Seeing as the mission took place after Neill Armstrong first walked on the moon in 1969, it was seen as a commonplace venture, but unforeseen circumstances quickly turned it into a remarkable chapter in NASA's history. Once in space, the group's vessel was damaged to the point that their survival was doubtful; Apollo 13 tells the story of these astronauts and the lengths required to bring them safely back to Earth.
Apollo 13 is a well-made film, consistently engaging and with a decent spate of performances to give it a credible emotional core. The picture was nominated for nine Oscars back in 1995 (it won two), and whilst it's hard to justify that level of acclaim, the film is undeniably an admirable piece of work. Howard shoots the movie attractively and thanks to the robust work of Hanks and company, Apollo 13 overcomes the dramatic inertia that has plagued large portions of its director's patchy CV.
The screenplay is a nicely adapted version of events, perhaps a little dense regarding certain details, but overall it takes the audience comfortably through the motions. Apollo 13 balances its hefty runtime between the trio of men in space, their families waiting anxiously for their return, and the NASA boffins trying to get them home. The picture has a fairly high dosage of CGI and visual splendor, but succeeds primarily because it musters a sense of humanity and dramatic integrity. The screenplay works several of the technical disasters that actually occurred on the mission into genuinely suspenseful moments, and thanks to strong performances, the heartbreak of the families is viably conveyed. Most people will be familiar with the fact the crew did eventually return home (seeing as it's a true story and the film was released 15 years ago, that's not much of a spoiler), but Apollo 13 still manages to churn some pulse pounding tension out of its tale.
Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton are all likable and effective. The group builds a fine rapport, though I find it hard to believe that their dynamic wasn't a little edgier in real life. Even when the going gets extraordinarily tough, the gang seems never more than a bit agitated with each other, meaning that whilst all the performances are sympathetic they lack conflict or friction. Still, given the upbeat nature of this film the trio of leads is perfectly fine. Ed Harris (The Truman Show) is good value as the head of NASA operations on the ground, whilst Gary Sinise (The Green Mile) captures a realistic disappointment as a shunned member of the Apollo 13 crew. The best performance is probably given by Kathleen Quinlan (The Hills Have Eyes), in the part of Lovell's brave but emotionally distraught wife. It's a wonderfully dignified and thoughtful piece of acting, fully deserving of the Oscar nomination it eventually earned her. One might argue that the characterization doesn't quite reach the standards of the best dramas, but for a big Hollywood film they are refreshingly genuine screen personas that steer well clear of saccharine territory.
Apollo 13 has a decent musical score and is visually rather epic. The film captures a believably large scope, and fuels several moments of digitally induced visual pleasure. The effects work was very good at the time, and it holds up reassuringly enough now. Howard is at least a technically proficient helmer and that comes through; it's a nice looking movie with a rewardingly gigantic blockbuster aesthetic. It's probable the film would have been a better production with the eyes of someone like Spielberg, Scorsese, or any director with a sharper sense of storytelling, but ultimately it's still a satisfactory picture under Howard's questionable guidance.
The Blu-Ray disc boasts very impressive audio and video capability. The video is particularly sharp and picks up a world of detail and depth, allowing the viewer to be fully immersed into Howard's adventure. The colors are vibrant and the picture has a purity that avoids grain or unwanted fuzziness, allowing for a sparkly and worthwhile Hi-Def transfer. The sound design on the film is consistently great, and this release capitalizes on that with a speaker shattering audio track. The disc comes with a decent raft of bonus materials, including a selection of featurettes that investigate both the making of and reality of the situation with a respectable weightiness. A commentary with Ron Howard is welcome, but the real standout is a fascinating commentary with the Lovells. Obviously Howard's is fuller on the filmmaking front, but the Lovell track is definitely the more memorable and historically interesting. The release also comes with D-Box capability, for those who care for such home theatre experiences. BD-Live connectivity is also incorporated, as is becoming the norm with all Blu-Ray discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Apollo 13 is certainly a movie that could do with a tighter sit in the editing suite. At 140 minutes, the movie is ponderously paced, such a runtime demanding a dramatic focus of more complexity than the movie ultimately provides. It remains a decently constructed version of the real life events, but I've got a feeling this is a narrative that could have been successfully trimmed and told in a shorter timeframe. After all, 140 minutes out of anybody's day is quite an amount
Apollo 13 is a mainstream but efficient retelling of the events that inspired it. It's one of the better movies directed by Ron Howard, and Universal have done a good job of rereleasing it on Blu-Ray. Those who own previous editions might want to consider a rental first (much of the supplementary stuff has appeared on other discs over the years), but on the whole I give this 15th Anniversary edition a thumbs up.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2010 Daniel Kelly; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.