APOLLO 13 Blu-ray Review

     April 7, 2010

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There is one thing concerning the USA that we can be proud of in recent history, one that we all should get excited about no matter what your politics are.  If you are a flower child, heavy metal death rocker, goth, red-neck, square, sports fan, dweeb or whatever… NASA and the United States space program deserve your attention and respect.  Man’s progress in the pioneering of space is really the most exciting endeavor that humankind is involved with, and it is too often overlooked and even ignored.  Cinema fans know one of the best films documenting the epic saga of American space flight is The Right Stuff (1983) that covered everything that we need to know about the early days of the space program from breaking the sound barrier to landing on the moon.  Ten years later, filmmaker Ron Howard gave us a very special movie about the space program that focuses on one particular part of the Apollo missions: the hair-raising and heroic tale of the Apollo 13. More after the jump:

Set to land on the moon, Apollo 13’s original task was made impossible due to a fuel line malfunction that nearly jeopardized three astronauts’ safe return back to Earth.  The moon landing of Apollo 13 was already regarded as routine and old news by early 1970’s. American news networks didn’t even bother covering the story of Apollo 13 until they dramatically struggled to return home, capturing the world’s attention.  Ron Howard recreated the adventure, masterfully capturing the story without “Hollywoodizing” it.  The result is a film that simply gets better with age, and with the new release of Apollo 13 this Blu-ray has no design flaws.

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The film looks fantastic in its 1080p widescreen presentation and 2.35:1 aspect ratio available in 5.1 audio. No doubt it’s an identical theatrical recreation for our home theaters to how the film was released in theaters back in 1995.  Can you think of another picture released in 1995 that is still worth talking about and still holds up?  Neither can I, though I may be a bit partial and sentimental regarding this film, because I was a production assistant on the movie.  Perhaps the greatest asset this film provides is the detail and accuracy put into the astronaut space suits, the space capsule and all of the cool NASA gadgets.  I was given the honor and entrusted with a task by producer Todd Hallowell to safely return one of NASA’s original eight ball instrument gauges that had actually been used in an Apollo capsule that orbited the moon. It is now safely in the secure lock-up, in a location that I will not disclose.  No expense was spared on the space-suits and the capsule; I remember even hearing the effects team mentioning that MCA’s legendary president Lew Wasserman was curious to see the Apollo prop instrument panel as it had cost him nearly 150 grand to build, and I am talking about just the front control panel with the switches and gages, not the rest of the space capsule set.

Mission Control was built on stage 27 at Universal Studios.  One member of NASA’s original mission control staff was hired to inspire and instruct the actors portraying the mission control team on the film.  The set was so accurate that at one moment the NASA veteran gestured behind him addressing the actors, pointing towards the back left hand corner of the set, telling them that there is this great barbeque restaurant right behind us.  The convincing floor-to-ceiling set allowed him to forget that he was not in Houston Texas, but that he was in California on a movie set.  If this is not enough accuracy for you, if nothing else, Apollo 13 does finally answer the question: how one pees in space, and what to do with it.

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Several classic documentaries are included on the Blu-ray, presented in standard definition; no doubt this material was put together perhaps for an earlier Apollo 13 release. Still, it’s great that the following content was included:  “Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13,” “Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond” (A recap of a half century in space), “Lucky 13: The Astronaut’s Story” (recounting the events of the mission) and feature commentaries with Ron Howard and Jim and Marilyn Lovell, the commander of the original Apollo 13 mission and his stoic wife.  It was Jim’s book “Lost Moon” that was the inspiration for film being made at all.

Documentaries make any DVD worth buying for their content alone.  I was one of the few who would buy “making of” documentaries back when you could only get paperback “making of” books.  Remember the “Jaws Log,” or the “The Making of the Empire Strikes Back” and then later laser-disc releases for the Raiders of the Lost Ark documentaries…home video gold!  Take advantage of DVDs and their under-$35.00 price-point that offer bonus features, especially docs about the making of films, they will only enrich your viewing experience.  I am still wincing because I paid $100.00 for The Adventures of Robin Hood laser-disc 2-disc set, with great “making of” features.

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It is so important that Universal’s Home Video department created “making of” content where we can learn about the Apollo 13 production.  For instance, Ron Howard wanted his actors to experience a true weightless situation, mimicking the weightlessness of space. He found that this could be recreated in a Zero-G airplane, a Casey 135. Basically, as I understand it, the airplane climbs to a 45-degree angle, then it pitches over at twenty-five thousand feet, and for a few moments, weightlessness is experienced.  I needed to know that it was Steven Spielberg who suggested and inspired the production to work out a deal with the government to allow them to place their capsule set inside of this aircraft to achieve something never before done in a movie…actual, real weightlessness. The actors and crew went up in the airplane and nose-dived to achieve those few moments of true weightlessness for the film over 600 times.  I know, these days we take this sort of illusion for granted, assuming that the helmet floating around in the capsule was just a computer-generated effect…wrong!

There is no doubt that Apollo 13 is a labor of love.  Producer Brian Grazer even regards Apollo 13 as the most satisfying film he has ever worked on.  Tom Hanks, Bill (Aliens, The Greatest Game Ever Played) Paxton and Ron Howard really delivered something noteworthy with this film.   The crew of Apollo 13 had guts on-screen and off, and, as Ron Howard said, “nobody wanted to let this story down, not the actors, not the crew members…nobody.”  Mission accomplished.

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