The single most exhilirating moment in Apollo 13 has to be the rocket launch. With the herculian assistance of special effects troupe Digital Domain, Ron Howard's film recreates the fire, noise, and riveting drama of an event that we all know only from grainy, warbly footage shown on television over the years. Astonishingly, Howard's camera moves alongside the rocketship, tilting and panning and tracking as the craft breaks free of its moorings and lifts off. At this point, a little bit of the magic that made Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park such jaw-dropping experiences is present, and it makes all the difference in our experience of the predicament to come.
If you've been living in a cave somewhere, you don't know that Apollo 13 is the reasonably true story of the manned space mission that was supposed to walk on the moon in April of 1970 but instead found itself lucky to return home alive. You don't know that the do-no-wrong Tom Hanks is a reasonable guarantor of the film's success, whether it's really good or not. You don't know that zero-gravity scenes were shot in a NASA airplane called the "vomet comet," which recreated weightlessness on a steep parabolic orbit (whatever that is). And you don't know that this movie, which looks on paper like it could be a snoozer, is a totally compelling and unique experience.
Fortunately, the marketing department at Universal has been trumpeting Apollo 13 as exactly that kind of experience, turning it into a summer moviegoing event. The canny ad campaign trades on the twin concepts of high adventure and bone-chilling fear to build awareness of this would-be blockbuster, and the picture lives up to the billing. The film is far from perfect, and Howard still exhibits some annoying directorial mannerisms, but his cast and crew all give him what he knows he needs to prop up a tight, smart script.
Jim Lovell (Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Bill Paxton (Fred Haise) are the crew of the Apollo 13, and the film isn't shy about celebrating them as heroes. Even in 1970, they're a bit of an anachronism. These astronauts couldn't be more excited about going to the moon, but such missions have already become old hat to the public. In one poignant scene from outer space, the astronauts bumble about in zero gravity, putting on a show for television broadcast. They don't know that all three networks have bumped the footage for standard programming; they're playing to an empty house. Naturally, when the routine mission becomes a near-disaster, the television crews are more than eager to cover the story.
As Lovell, Hanks isn't entirely convincing, but he's exactly the kind of character he needs to be to win the audience's support. Inside the capsule, the film is very much an ensemble effort, but Hanks still keeps the level head and gets the best lines ("Houston, we have a problem."). Kevin Bacon is well-cast as the last-minute addition to the crew who throws the cameraderie a little off-balance. And Ed Harris, as the NASA flight commander, anchors the story back in Houston, as a shirt-and-tied army breaks out the slide rules and the duct tape and tries to figure out how to jury-rig a spaceship.
Technically, the film is astonishing. Cinematographer Dean Cundey has developed from his early days doing great work for director John Carpenter (Halloween) into a high-concept miracle worker (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park). The film editing, by Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, is lean and seamless. And the aforementioned special effects aren't always 100 percent convincing, but they are usually inspired and beautiful.
If Apollo 13's biggest asset is its cast, then its biggest liability is Howard, who still doesn't have the sensibility of a first-rank director. In this movie, he thinks too much is just enough. The first act of the film, which culminates in the launch, is rife with clumsy foreshadowing of the crisis ahead. Jim's car stalls at a traffic light. His son asks uncomfortable questions about the things that can go wrong with a space flight. Much is made of the significance of unlucky number 13. By the time Jim's wife, Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), loses her wedding ring down the drain in the shower, Howard is just wasting time and space that could be used to better effect in terms of character development. And when the crisis does get well under way, Howard goes overboard trying to underscore the danger. Cutaways from the interior of the craft to the outside, where it pitches and rolls through outer space like a sailboat caught in a typhoon, are unnecessarily noisy and jarring. By this point, Howard is letting the special effects run away with a very compelling story.
And it's especially jarring to see this tough, heroic material get the baby food treatment, as Howard spoonfeeds emotion to the audience. As the module approaches reentry, Hanks looks out the craft's window, which is filled by the glowing earth. His face fills the screen in close-up, and the audience can read any number of complex emotions into his expression. But the very next shot is an insert of anxious wife Kathleen Quinlan looking up at the sky through her window at home. We get the point, of course. Still, the scene was so much richer for the brief moment when we were allowed to project our own feelings onto the screen, instead of being told: "Look -- he's thinking about his wife." That's only the best example of the moments where this film approaches greatness but settles for melodrama. Apollo 13 is a terribly exciting experience, but it could have been a terribly moving one as well.