Originally Reviewed – 2/16/2012
If there’s one certainly in the world of cinema, it’s that we love going to space. A place few of us will see in our lifetime, film gives us a window to a mysterious world where gravity fails, stars shine bright and, no matter how hard you try, nobody can hear you scream. Every imaginable genre has taken trips to the great beyond. From Georges Méliès groundbreaking A Trip to the Moon to the surrealistic nightmare of 2001, filmmakers have been fascinated with the skies above since the beginning of the art form. Hell, even Abbot and Costello went to Mars.
Problem was that space had always been situated in the realm of science fiction. Fantasy tales of thunderous rockets, starship battles and grotesque aliens, nobody ever bothered to simply get it right. Depict space travel as it really was for the brave men and women who stepped into a tiny capsule strapped to 800,000 pounds of rocket fuel and blasted into the heavens. Not quite Wile E Coyote strapped to an Acme rocket, but close. Luckily for us, director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks had that a singular vision to bring the real life drama of space travel to the screen. The result was 1995’s Apollo 13, an emotionally stirring story of tragedy and triumph wrapped in the real life drama of a doomed NASA mission.
When I first saw this film in the late nineties, I had no clue of the real Apollo 13 mission. My dad brought the VHS home one day, we popped it in and I was blown away. The story tracks the strange set of circumstances that took the voyage of Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and turned it into a fight for survival. Not satisfied with simply tracking the mission, the movie also tells the story of Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the astronaut left behind, the mission’s gruff flight director, Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and Jim’s wife (Kathleen Quinlan). The movie boasts an extraordinary accuracy in not only how they deal with the science, how they handle the relationships between the different players. Simply put, the film feels real from performance to blast off.
Tom Hanks stars as the captain of the doomed vessel and you can tell he loves every minute of his portrayal. A self-professed space nut to begin with, Hanks hurls himself into the role with surprising restraint, getting every beat of the eagle eyed captain down to a tee. Harris is also noteworthy in the role of the flight director, giving a grounded and restrained performance. The film also boasts the most accurate depictions of the science of space travel ever put to film. From the inside of Mission Control, to the interiors of the spacecraft to the launch itself, Apollo 13 set a standard for space realism, a benchmark no film has exceeded since.
The story itself is treated with the same attention to detail, sometimes to the detriment of the film. Side stories like Jim’s wife losing her ring in the shower or the networks not running the crew’s TV broadcast may come off as emotionally leading but actually took place in the real life events. These scenes may come off cheesy to the viewer but they never dull the impact of the events that took place. Viewers who are unaware of the actual story may find the suspense artificially enhanced but the effect is downright riveting. Every element of the movie, from the sound design to the score, are all perfectly pitched to heighten the drama and creating genuine suspense.
As I said in the outset of this review, if space movies are a dime a dozen, Apollo 13 is the statistical outlier. While it may not have any standout performances, the film is a well-mixed combination of acting and directing. Standing on the bedrock of historical accuracy and providing more than enough suspense, Apollo 13 is an entertaining docudrama that holds up even today. Suffice to say, when NASA astronauts not only approve the production but use scenes from the film for historical purposes, you know you got it right. A fine film in nearly every regard.
Score – 90%