There's science fiction, and then there is science fact. I've never been a particular fan of the former, to be honest. Sure, I enjoy silly futuristic flicks about giant robots and green people with lampshades on their heads as much as much as the next film buff, but I can't say I've ever been that emotionally drawn in by tales of far-off worlds and alternate universes. I prefer the kind of story more rooted in today's technology, of our present-day yearning to discover answers to mankind's big cosmic questions. Films like '2001: A Space Odyssey,' 'Close Encounters,' 'Contact' and Ron Howard's Oscar-winning 1995 epic 'Apollo 13.'
The story of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar landing is so firmly-etched into our shared American consciousness that it may not need explanation. But then you may be an historical ignoramus like me, so here's a quick recap. It is a year after America's first successful lunar landing. The Apollo 13 is due to launch, though the media frenzy has begun to subside amid waning interest in the space program (leave it to America -- only twelve months go by and landing on the moon is already old hat). But when something goes wrong on the Apollo 13 mid-flight, the world is captivated by the life and death struggle facings its three pilots - Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) -- high above in space. Since history has already spoiled the ending, I can safely say that this time the Titanic doesn't sink and our boys all come back home safe and in one piece. But it is one hell of a suspenseful, nerve-jangling ride along the way, for both those onboard the spacecraft and their families back home.
Based in part on the novel "Lost Moon" by Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, Howard's film takes some liberties with the characters and emotional aspects of the story (compositing characters and incidents, etc.) but is absolutely slavish to the historical details. The approach works. Apollo 13 is both a gripping thriller (even if we know the outcome), a moving human drama and a wonderful recreation of an landmark cultural moment. Smartly, Howard constantly shuttles back and forth between the three core stories at play -- the astronauts up in space, the NASA technicians on the ground trying to pilot the craft back to safety, and the helpless families back home who can only watch and wait with the rest of America for the outcome. This split focus keeps the film in constant dramatic motion, and allows it touch upon so many thematic elements -- heroism, patriotism, man's need to explore the universe despite the high cost, and the toll that exploration takes on family and society.
Watching 'Apollo 13' ten years after I first saw it on video, I was surprised to find I enjoyed it even more the second time. I have never been a particular fan of Ron Howard's films -- I've felt him a bit too saccharine for my taste, and lacking in the bravura technique of a Spielberg, who can usually make the sentimental pap go down more smoothly. But here, perhaps because he is dealing with factual material, nothing feels phony. We believe in this people, their heroism, their courage, and their emotions. That Howard also marries it with great technical filmmaking skill is what makes it thrilling cinema. I think 'Apollo 13' may still be Howard's best film.
Out of all the HD-DVD titles released thus far, 'Apollo 13' is the oldest, a whopping eleven years ancient this year. So I was intrigued to see how the format's high-resolution capabilities would lend themselves to a film produced before the age of ultra-crisp digital technology was in full bloom. Also unique about 'Apollo 13' is that the film was re-released to IMAX theaters last year, reframed from its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio to a more IMAX-friendly 1.66:1. It was also given a top-flight digital restoration to accommodate the format's huge screen, albeit with a trade-off -- version was also trimmed by 24 minutes, necessitated by the limitations of reel size for IMAX large-format films.
The version of 'Apollo 13' presented on this HD DVD is the film's original 140-minute theatrical cut in 2.35:1 widescreen. Though last year's Anniversary Edition standard DVD release also included the IMAX version presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, that version is not included here. Personally, I'd much rather have the theatrical version (as I feel many of the cuts made for the IMAX version rob supporting characters of their depth and blunt the film's overall emotional impact), though it would have been nice to have both versions, if only for comparison's sake. Needless to add, completists will be far from pleased.
But most problematic about the missing IMAX version is that some reviewers of the Anniversary Edition DVD found it boasted improved image quality over the 2.35:1 theatrical transfer. I have a completely unsupported theory on that, which is that a 1.66:1 crop culled from a 2.35:1 master image is basically turning a long-shot into a close-up -- of course you are going to see more detail. Not to mention that a 1.66:1 image fills up more of a TV screen than a 2.35:1 image, so I'm not surprised many found the IMAX version on the previous DVD more visually impressive, despite the compromises made to the film's content.
All that said, the 2.35:1 image presented here on this HD DVD was taken from the same new HD master minted for the Anniversary Edition standard DVD, and it does look great. I had not seen this film for many years, and doing a direct A/B comparison to both the Anniversary Edition and original (now out-of-print) original DVD from 1998 really showed how far transfer technology has come. Of course the HD-DVD blows away the original 1998 release, but it also improves upon last year's DVD reissue. Thanks to the HD format's expanded color space, colors are a bit richer -- reds especially appeared more saturated but no more noisy, and I loved the deep blues and purples of the film's vast outer space vistas. (Call me a geek, but I frequently paused the picture, just to stare at the many impressive recreations of our Earth's atmosphere.) And as expected, detail is also improved over last year's standard DVD release. Encoded as all of Universal's HD-DVD releases are at 1080p, the image is often stunning in its clarity and depth. I gained even more appreciation for the film's production design -- you can now see just how intricate are the details of the cramped cockpit of the Apollo 13, and the tiniest touches in the recreation of the NASA command center.
But perhaps what struck me the most about the HD DVD transfer was that it reminded me how incredibly well most of the film's CGI sequences have held up. Only two years after 'Jurassic Park,' the effects artists behind 'Apollo 13' combined the then-latest computer-generated trickery combined with actual Apollo 13 launch footage to create some staggering recreations. I was shocked that really nothing looked fake, even eleven years later (versus some of the dinos in 'Jurassic,' which quite frankly have dated badly in the intervening years). These sequences alone make 'Apollo 13' on HD DVD well worthy of being near the top of your pile of demo discs.
Alas, the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track included on the HD-DVD is a disappointment, if only in comparison to the DTS track included on the Anniversary Edition DVD. Unfortunately, there is no DTS option here, and even with the increased bitrate afforded by the Dolby Digital-Plus track, it can't quite compare to the DTS.
'Apollo 13' is certainly a barn-blowing soundtrack. The Apollo 13 liftoff sequence is what home theater is made for -- and it doesn't sound terrific here. But doing some direct A/B comparisons of few scenes between the HD DVD and standard DVD DTS track, and I still felt the previous DTS was a bit fuller in its surround presence, and with stronger subwoofer LFE. I thought both soundtracks handled dialogue equally, as well as separation across all channels. Though the DTS also excelled just a tad in terms of better midrange -- especially James Horner's score, which is somewhat more robust and surging on the DTS.
Still, the Dolby Digital-Plus track is no slouch, and hardly disappointing on its own terms. Hopefully in the future, HD-DVD content suppliers will begin offering a DTS option on their disc releases and, of course, full-blown Dolby TrueHD soundtracks.
All of the video-based extras from the Anniversary Edition standard DVD release are included here (so far, I have not seen any HD DVD discs that carry over text-based features like production notes from prior disc titles). All are presented in 480i video, and look perfectly fine for non-HD produced material.
First up are two screen-specific audio commentaries, the first with director Ron Howard and the second with real-life Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell and his wife Marilyn. To Howard's great credit, he manages to be consistently engaging for 140 minutes, with great enthusiasm for the film, his team and the original source material. He also doesn't get too technical (as some directors do, who seem more in love with their toys than their story), except for a few of the effects sequence, but even then he remains as charming as a schoolboy. The Lovells also deliver a strong track, one laced with emotion -- not just for Howard's passionate re-telling of their story, but of course the original real-life drama that captivated the world. Still, I couldn't help but feel a single track, featuring all three's comments edited together, would have worked just as well, and saved me half the time. (Boy, do I sound bitter?)
Next up is the 56-minute documentary "Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13," which was included on the original 1996 DVD release of the film. It holds up surprisingly well, with interviews with all of the film's major players (Howard, Hanks, etc.), as well as many of the historical figures depicted in the film. I also enjoyed the behind-the-scenes footage on the filming of the zero gravity sequences, which is quite amusing. Though the doc obviously cannot touch on the legacy of the film itself, as most of this material appears to have been shot during or right after 'Apollo 13' was first released, it does a fine job of giving us a comprehensive look at the film's making, from conception to post-production.
Two new features were created for last year's Anniversary Edition DVD and are also included here. The 48-minute documentary "Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond" is largely a history lesson on the world's space race. It does drag a bit at first, and the back-and-forth talking heads interviews and historical footage quickly grows a bit tiresome. But it picks up in the second half, and for a history dummy like me, was certainly informative. Also included is a 12-minute segment originally produced for the TV news program "Dateline NBC" entitled "Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story." A nice companion to "Lost Moon," it is sort of like a reunion between the Apollo 13's surviving astronauts, including fresh interviews with Lovell as well as Fred Haise, Gene Kranz and to of mission controllers. Well worth a look.
'Apollo 13' is a very strong HD-DVD release. One of Ron Howard's best efforts, it looks great, sounds great (despite the lack of a DTS track), and contains all of the important extras from the previous Anniversary Edition standard DVD release. Some may complain about the omission of the IMAX version, but personally was not bothered by it, especially as its 24 minutes of excised material is sorely missed. So if the lack of the IMAX version doesn't concern you, I'd say upgrading over the previous DVD is well worth considering if you're a fan of 'Apollo 13.'