Review: Apollo 13

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: William Broyles Jr, Al Reinert
Composer: James Horner
Starring: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan

This past Saturday, July 20th, the world celebrated a half-century since the first time man landed on the moon. It was an incredible day of commemorating one of humanity’s greatest technological accomplishments. In honor of that feat, please enjoy this belated review of Ron Howard’s classic historical thriller Apollo 13

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Sequences of suspense and near-death experiences, no gore.

Language/Crude Humor: Some language throughout including s*** and g**d***.

Sexual Content: Nothing depicted, some innuendo and an offscreen sex scene.

Other Negative Content: None.

Positive Content: Themes of problem solving and survival.

Apollo 13 movie image Tom Hanks

Review

Last week I was blindsided when I found out that the previous Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon by Apollo 11. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that given that there was a time in my life that I would’ve likely had that date written on my calendar months in advance. I was raised in the romance of the space race by my father who taught me all about the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union between 1957 and 1969 to put the first man on the moon. I probably should’ve gotten the hint that in the past year we got two well-made movies about the moon landing with Damien Chazelle’s First Man and CNN’s documentary Apollo 11

My daftness aside, I’ve spent the past few days revisiting some of my favorite space race movies in honor of mankind’s greatest technological accomplishment. Among them is Ron Howard’s 1995 historical thriller Apollo 13. Maybe there were more appropriate picks to revisit on such an anniversary than the film about America’s only failed mission to the moon but I had two reasons to justify this error. The first was that Apollo 13 is one of my all-time favorite films. The second is that there’s a certain irony to watching a movie about the irrelevancy of the space program after having forgotten the anniversary. 

Irrelevancy is a huge theme in the film after the movie’s opening. Apollo 13 was planned to be the third moon mission in April of 1970 less than a year after Apollo 11 yet the public had already gotten so bored with manned space flight that no major network planned to broadcast NASA’s live TV broadcasts with the crew. At the film’s beginning, major politicians are already starting to push to end the Apollo program with their third flight. Perversely, the thing that get’s the eyes of the public back on Apollo 13 is the morbid drama that played out.

At first, things seem quite normal (although as flight commander Jim Lovell says, there is nothing normal about landing on the moon) when halfway on their journey a massive explosion rocks the spacecraft and starts spewing oxygen into the vacuum of space. The explosion has the secondary effect of slowly draining the ship’s electricity in addition to the ship’s oxygen supply which leaves the crew with the task to shut down the dying spacecraft days from the earth before life support goes out. From here on out the story follows the desperate attempt of the three astronauts and the men on the ground at Mission Control as they have to work their way through engineering problems and find a way to get the crew back to Earth safely.   

The film is based on the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 which was co-written by the ship’s commander Jim Lovell. Naturally, the movie version of Lovell is played by the ever immortal Tom Hanks. Part of what makes the story work so excellently is its dedication to playing out the events as they happened. There is some hyperbole such as the scenes involving drama between the astronauts which didn’t happen but other than that the movie is played out remarkably similar to how the events of the actual Apollo 13 disaster occured. The movie relies entirely on real human drama as it transpired in real life.  

Apollo 13 is also one of the most spectacular special effects films ever made. Much like the then-recent Jurassic Park, the movie’s blend of CGI and practical effects is deeply engrossing in a way most modern films overreliant on CGI aren’t. Part of this is thanks to how the film executed much of the effects. CGI is only used for shots of the spacecraft’s exterior and they’re all very well composed. For the film’s anti-gravity scenes, the production had to shoot all of the segments aboard Apollo 13 in anti-gravity simulators which involve flying a KC-135 aircraft at an extremely low angle at high speed to simulate weightlessness for several second intervals. This is the same method that NASA uses to train its astronauts for zero gravity. The method only creates weightlessness for approximately 23 seconds which means that all of the takes had to be recorded quickly. In the final cut, the effect is indistinguishable from seeing the actual actors floating in space. 

There’s probably a light critique that could be made about the script overall. It’s not a story crafted around traditional character arcs which makes the film feel strange at times. Ron Howard is a workman by most standards as his highly eclectic filmography has shown. When he has a good script he makes great movies but when he has a bad script he’s unable to elevate the material. Certainly, Apollo 13 does feel the sting at times of being produced via functionality rather than auteur intent. That said, it’s a story fundamentally about how highly trained and intelligent people act when their backs are against the wall. It’s not a traditional morality play as much as it is a series of puzzles and practical problems that have to be worked out.

In that, it’s immensely suspenseful. The movie does a good job expressing at every point just how high the dramatic stakes are if the characters fail at any step of the process. One wrong move means flying off into deep space forever, suffocating to death or burning up in reentry. For what it is, Apollo 13 is a uniquely memorable and effective film and one of the best stories ever told about the space race. 

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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