The Great Space Race that ran concurrent to the Cold War during the 50s, 60s and 70s is one of the great sagas of human exploration. Egged on by one another, the Russians and Americans launched a series of missions with the moon in their sights, determined to put a living human being in its surface and bring them back. Of the few films that have addressed this period, none have had the cultural impact of Ron Howard’s ‘Apollo 13’. Both a critical and commercial success back in 1995, it is now considered something of a classic. After 20 years though, and in a cinematic landscape post-‘Gravity’, does it still hold the same power and awe it did when it was first released?
I’ve only seen ‘Apollo 13’ a handful of times, and my memory of it was always a bit sketchy. I’m secretly something of an astronomy nut, so I devour any film or documentary on space that I can get my hands on. For some reason though, ‘Apollo 13’ had never made the strongest impression on me. For that reason, settling down to rematch it for this feature, I was intrigued as to what I would make of it now.
The film covers one of the most harrowing and heroic moments in the Space Race - when the Apollo 13 mission, on its way to land on the moon, suffers an horrific explosion. Suddenly, it became a race against time to get astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) home safe, working against the most unforgiving environment known to man.
It’s one hell of a story, and practically begged to be adapted to the big screen. Working from Lovell’s written account of the mission, the film begins modestly by introducing the human side of the tale, not only the three astronauts but also their wives and families, before erupting into an visually epic tale of survival. You could almost divide ‘Apollo 13’ into two films, each with its own individual cast of characters with Lovell, Haise and Swigert as the link between. While the first act doesn’t quite grab you as well as it could, the film kicks well and truly into gear once we reach space and all hell breaks loose. Even though you know that these three men will eventually reach home safely, you can’t help but twist and turn with the tension.
'APOLLO 13' TRAILER
At the time ‘Apollo 13’ went into production, the only film that had been able to capture a realistic representation of space had been ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), which was made before anyone had even made it to the moon. ‘Jurassic Park’ had only been made a few years before in 1993, so computer visual effects were still in their relative infancy. Even with a powerful human story at its centre, the success of ‘Apollo 13’ rested on whether Ron Howard and his team could accurately recreate the experience (and ultimately the danger) of being in space. The only other film that had addressed the Space Race with any great success had been Philip Kaufman’s wonderful ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983) which had used stock NASA footage, but as powerful as that footage was, something much grander was needed for ‘Apollo 13’.
What they achieved back in 1995 is still just as breaking today. Combining models, trick photography and computer effects, they used the archival NASA footage as a reference point to show points of view of the space mission unlike anything we’d seen before. They even went as far as to shoot a huge portion of the film in actual zero gravity using the 'Vomit Rocket', which gave them just under 30 seconds of weightlessness near the edge of space, allowing them to accurately recreate the look of a zero gravity environment. There’s a reason ‘Apollo 13’ goes from a good to a great film once we hit space, because it suddenly becomes a story only cinema could tell. When compared to visual effects today, the work on this film still illicit a sense of awe, not only because of their technical skill but also their visual poetry.
And that’s where ‘Apollo 13’ distinguishes itself amongst most space-based film (you can hardly call it science fiction when it’s based on a true story). Howard and screenwriters William Broyles Jr and Al Reinert never lose sight of the human story at its heart. No area is left unattended, whether that be the men trapped in space, their wives back home or the men in the control room trying desperately to bring the astronauts home. One great example is Gene Kranz, the flight director of the mission played by Ed Harris. He only appears halfway through the film, but he’s such an arresting character that he becomes as much a protagonist as the astronauts. Where others might not have expanded these kinds of characters, or left the wives of the astronauts as nothing more than reactive observers, ‘Apollo 13’ makes the extra effort to keep these characters as connected to the main narrative as the trapped men in space.
Both a critical and commercial success back in 1995, 'Apollo 13' is now considered something of a classic.
But does it deserve to be called a classic? I have to admit that I’m still not totally bowled over by ‘Apollo 13’. There’s no question that it becomes an infinitely better film once we reach space and the clock starts ticking, but the first act doesn’t quite have the cohesion or the kick that it needs. Maybe it just comes down to the fact that the second and third acts of the film are far more cinematic than the rest, and that the control room scenes are so arresting that the character set-ups feel flimsy by comparison. Then again, without them perhaps the rest of the film wouldn’t be as affecting. There is so much to admire about the film - Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s wife Marilyn both give superb (and Oscar-nominated) performances, Howard’s direction is at its best rigorous and passionate, and the late James Horner delivers a beautifully emotional score. And my eyes are still glued to the screen through every twist and turn of the terrifying mission, waiting to see what happens next. So is it a classic? You know what, I’m going to say that the jury is still out for me. There’s something undeniably appealing about it, and maybe that should be enough to overcome the nagging feeling that something just isn’t quite right.
Ron Howard and Tom Hanks weren’t quite done with the Space Race yet. In 1998, they produced the epic HBO miniseries ‘From The Earth to the Moon’ which covered the full scope of the Apollo program. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a perfect complement to both ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘The Right Stuff’, and wildly entertaining in its own right. Also worth checking out are the superb documentaries ‘For All Mankind’ (1989) and ‘In The Shadow of the Moon’ (2007). This period of history is such a thrilling one, and even though only a few films have addressed it with the respect and detail that it deserves, it’s a good thing we have these few that do.
‘Apollo 13’ is one of the prime examples of the romantic Hollywood cinema of the 90s that reached its zenith with ‘Titanic’ in 1997. It’s a sweeping epic centred around one hell of a true story, of three men caught in the ultimate nightmare and how they and those back on the Earth somehow got them home safe. The narrative of the journey home is one of the great narratives we have as human beings, one that connects with all of us, and ‘Apollo 13’ is all the more potent because the story is true. It might not be a perfect film, but it’s filled with so much passion that most flaws seem inconsequential. Even after 20 years, it still has the power to keep us in awe and on the edge of our seats.