When NASA sent its astronauts into space in the 1960s and 1970s, there were only two possibilities: either they come back safe to earth or not - there was not much margin in between. One of the big exceptions was the flight of Apollo 13, which, despite an enormeous catastrophe, brought the astronauts safely back to earth. One year after the first moon landing the public interest in the space program was at an all-time low - while Apollo 12 with the second moon landing was still able to garner some interest, there was not much left when Apollo 13 launched.
Astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert had just finished a live television broadcast when it happened: a big bang and the spacecraft and its electronics went out of control. At first the ground team in Houston, led by flight director Gene Kranz, suspected a slight technical glitch because nobody had seen so many error messages at once, but slowly everybody realized that something terrible had happened. There was no other choice than to abandon the moon landing and focus on bringing the astronauts back alive. It was the beginning of one of the biggest catastrophies, but also the most successful rescue operations in the history of NASA.
For a long time, the flight of Apollo 13 was chalked up as the worst chapter of American spaceflight together with the fire disaster of Apollo 1. Only since the 1980s the public became really aware that Apollo 13 had not been a complete catastrophy at all and meant valuable experience in crisis management for NASA. After all, the most important goal had been successfully achieved - to save the lives of the astronauts. Considering the less than favourable odds, this had been an unbelievable accomplishment by the people in Mission Control and, of course, the Astronauts themselves.
When Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell had announced in the early 1990s that he wanted to tell about his experience in a book, Hollywood immediately began to fight for the film rights. When The Lost Moon - The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, written by Lovell with the help of journalist Jeffrey Kluger, was published in Autumn 1994, the film rights had already been sold. After a heavy bidding war, Imagine Entertainment, the company founded by producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard in 1986, had secured the rights after the book was recommended to them by of their producers, Michael Bostick, whose father had been working in the space program. Imagine won and even before the producers had already contacted Jim Lovell to ensure him that they were only interested in sticking to the facts. With this approach, Grazer and Howard had not only gotten the support of Jim Lovell, but also froms NASA, creating the best possible conditions for the making of a movie from Lovell's book.
For the adaption of Jim Lovell's book, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard made the unusual, but fortunate decision not to hire any big-name screenwriters. The script was instead developed by just two writers, the journalist team of William Broyles and Al Reinert, who actually had never worked on a huge Hollywood production before, but were ideal for what was now simply called Apollo 13. Broyles had been a journalist since the early 1970s before also becoming a book author and television writer. He had met Al Reinert during his days as the co-founder of Texas Monthly, when Reinert had mainly worked on reporting about the space program. His interviews with the astronauts later became the basis of his movie For All Mankind, which for the first time showed the vast amount of film and video material shot on the moon missions in a feature-length documentary, making him the one writer with the most knowledge about the Apollo program.
Reinert and Broyles worked closely with Jim Lovell's book, but due to its original structure, a lot of changes and editing was necessary during the transformation into the screenplay to fit the story into a roughly two-hour movie. But the authors took the greatest care not to falsify any facts and every change was not only cleared with Jim Lovell, but also with a team of advisors, among them many people who had worked at NASA during the 1970s and even were involved in the Apollo 13 flight. Everyone was prepared to give the filmmakers and authors a lot of artistic freedom, but they actually stuck closely to the real events and only chose to make changes when it was really warranted.
A huge help had also been the extensive NASA documentation of the mission, in particular the recordings and transcriptions of the radio transmissions and talk in the mission control center, which became the basis for much of the dialogue of the movie. Al Reinert and William Broyles also paced the story in a quite leisurely way, placing the incident about fifty minutes into the movie and focusing heavily on the events leading up to the launch including a last-minute astronaut replacement and a detailed view behind the scenes at the space agency. While the story was centered around the catastrophy, it also became a detailed account of a typical Apollo flight of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In contrast to Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and its film adaption by Philip Kaufman, the authors had refrained from giving the movie a satirical or humoristic slant as requested by Jim Lovell and the filmmakers. There is a little bit of good-natured humour in the dialogue, but the story takes itself very serious - fortunately never so dead serious that it gets boring. Despite the well-known outcome of the plot, the authors switched gears brilliantly and made Apollo 13 a first-class thriller full of suspense and even surprise. The script also did not lack another most important ingredient: the awe, respect and enthusiasm for the space program and its achievements, unfortunately coupled with a fair amount of American patriotism which may be a bit too much for non-American viewers.
When Ron Howard and Brian Grazer had first talked to Jim Lovell, the former astronaut had remarked that he looked a lot like Kevin Costner when he was younger - which was actually true, but unfortunately the actor was not interested in the project. Someone else, however, was: Tom Hanks had been a "closet astronaut" since his childhood and was very enthusiastic about the idea of portraying Jim Lovell and his immense knowledge about the space program made him not only a substitute, but the prime choice for the lead role of Apollo 13. Hanks was at the height of his career in the mid-1990s and had both the superstar status needed to ensure a boxoffice hit and the necessary experience as both a comedian and as a serious and very versatile actor. He made no attempt to disguise himself, but rather played a close approximation of Jim Lovell without really imitating him.
The filmmakers originally had planned to cast Lovell's crewmates Jack Swigert and Fred Haise with completely unknown actors, but this idea was abandoned because the filmmakers feared that only one leading star would be bad for the publicity of the movie. The last two thirds of what was basically an ensemble cast for the majority of the movie was nevertheless very carefully cast - the filmmakers had chosen Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton to portray Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. Both actors were not yet as huge stars as Tom Hanks, but together formed an impressive trio portraying the crew of Apollo 13 in a very realistic and completely natural way .
Another very important secondary character had been equally carefully chosen - Gene Kranz, the flight director mostly responsible for the safe return of Apollo 13, was played by none other than Ed Harris, who had also portrayed John Glenn in The Right Stuff more than a decade before. Nevertheless, the actor succeeded in separating his two characters completely and gave a very authentic and intensive performance as Gene Kranz. Gary Sinise, who previously had appeared alongside Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump took the role of Ken Mattingly, the unfortunate crewmate of Lovell and Haise grounded by the measels, while Kathleen Quinlan, and old friend of Ron Howard from his days as an actor, portrayed Marilyn Lovell.
While the focus was primarily on the astronauts and their families, showing the events in the control room made a huge cast necessary, because the filmmakers insisted of complete accuracy - and that meant two complete shifts of flight controllers at the consoles, The large crowd of flight controllers was played by a group of relatively unknown actors, because the filmmakers had wisely refrained from stuffing the casting with cameos - the only really familiar face is Ron Howard's brother Clint, who plays an approximation of Sy Liebergot, one of the more famous flight controllers. Real cameos were found elswhere in the movie - in an old tradition Ron Howard gave almost his whole family small appearances and also his former mentor Roger Corman. Jim and Marilyn Lovell of course also make a small appearance. News anchor Walter Cronkite only appeared in stock footage, but to the amazement of the filmmakers was so generous to re-record some of his voiceovers to match them better to the movie's pace.
Before the production began, the filmmakers made sure that the three lead actors were fit to portray the astronauts by getting them as close to the experience of spaceflight as possible. Meeting former and current astronauts was not the only part of Ron Howards and Brian Grazers program, they also sent their actors to the famous Space Camp in Alabama and they also managed to charter a flight on NASA's KC-135 "Vomit Comet". This military version of a Boeing 707 performed parabolic flights, making short periods of about half a minute of weightlessness possible - with all its effects and repercussions, hence the nickname of the plane. The filmmakers did not force their actors to take the flight, but everybody was a good sport and took this unique chance to experience weightlessness at least for a short time.
Originally there was just one flight with the KC-135 planned, but then Steven Spielberg, a good friend of the filmmakers, had the idea to actually use the parabolic flights for filming instead of painstakingly simulating weightlessness in the studio. Because there were no commercial companies offering weighless flights yet in the 1990s, the big question was if NASA would cooperate. The space agency obliged and reserved one of their KC-135 planes over the course of six months for the production of Apollo 13. With special sets, which had to fit into the interior of the plane, over six hundred weighless periods were used to film short takes, which were then seamlessly matched with studio footage. This allowed the movie to be the first one to portray actual weightlessness and the actors and filmmakers managed to hold up so well in zero-g that they even earned the respect of the plane crew, who had no high expectations of them.
The actors portraying the ground crew also went through extensive preparations, visiting the real mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and attending a basic flight controller school led by Apollo 13 flight director Gerry Griffin and Jerry Bostick, the father of producer Michael Bostick. They ensured that the portrayal of the control center was as close to reality as possible, something which had never been properly attempted before in a movie.
The two main locations, the spaceship and the mission control center in Houston were completely recreated by production designer Michael Corenblith and set designer Merideth Boswell at the Universal Studios in Hollywood. While NASA had offered one of the original control rooms at the Johnson Space Center for filming, the filmmakers decided to build their own versions to allow for more flexibility during the shooting since the actual control rooms were quite spacey, but still not big enough for a full film crew. The four-walled set was so detailed that even former NASA people working on the movie saw little difference to the real thing and were amazed by the high authenticity.
Two separate, but visually identical versions of the Odyssey command and service module, the CSM and the lunar lander, were constructed - one for the use in the KC-135 plane and one for the studio shots. They were built by the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, the home of many examples of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo ships and many more artifacts of the early american space program. During the film's production, the engineers were working on the restoration of the actual Apollo 13 command module and were able to use real spare parts for the film recreations. Like the control center, everything was as real as possible while allowing for the flexibility like opening the set to allow room for the camera.
From the beginning, the filmmakers had decided that their movie would do without any of NASA's stock footage because the quality was not quite good enough for the big cinema screens Apollo 13 was designed for. For this ambitious task, the filmmakers did not go to Industrial Light and Magic, but a new company called Digital Domain, which had only been founded recently in 1993 by filmmaker James Cameron, special and visual effects creator Stan Winston and a former studio executive of ILM, Scott Ross. The visual effects relied heavily on computer graphics, but because Ron Howard insisted on highly detailed images needing to hold up even on the largest cinema screens, some shots were still created with the help of traditional models, but were later digitally composited. The effects, particularly those in the launch sequence, looked so realistic that even Buzz Aldrin thought that they were undiscovered original NASA footage.
Despite the elaborate visual effects, Apollo 13 focused heavily on storytelling and the characters, making the movie almost a stage play driven almost completely by dialogue. The plot may happen in space, but the locations are limited to the spaceship, the control center and only few other places like the Lovell's house. Ron Howard, Al Reinert and William Broyles brilliantly understood to combine and balance the three different perspectives and exactly knew how to keep the much needed suspense going. This sometimes meant a little bit of plot fabrication, notably some tensions between the astronauts which originally did not happen, but there were not many other liberties taken for dramatic reasons.
While the patriotism is in places a little too strong for european viewers, there is only a surprisingly low amount of hero worship going on - instead the astronauts and flight controllers are not portrayed as invincible superhumans, but very normal people who have trained hard to handle exactly such a life-threatening situation. Consequently, Apollo 13 is actually a complete ensemble story and not the Tom Hanks solo show some of the advertising material suggests. The catastrophy itself is not sensationalised too much, but the movie makes the excellent point that spaceflight in these days was an even riskier endeavour than it is today. The script also succeeds in integrating many of the technical details directly into the plot without making the movie too complicated.
For the musical accompaniment, only three of the great "space" composers, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams or James Horner were really qualified and the filmmakers ultimately chose the latter one. In the 1980s, Horner had actually been the successor of Jerry Goldsmith when he composed the grandiose scores for Star Trek II and III, but chose to go a completely different route for Apollo 13. Instead of strong opera-like sounds, he used a much less bombastic and more quiet style. Sweeping, often even melodramatic sounds with a noticeable militaristic and patriotic undertone were a far cry from his Star Trek scores, which Apollo 13 sadly only resembles very faintly.
Strange is also the use of Annie Lennox as a singer, who occasionally doubles the melody in a much to emotional way standing out like a sore thumb in the orchestral score - fortunately this mistake is mostly limited to the closing credits. With its very simple and much overused themes, dominated by the signature trumpet theme, James Horner's composition was not the magnificent score Apollo 13 would have deserved. However, despite its limitations his film music does the job quite well and while many regard it as one of his best works, it could have been much better. One wonders if John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith or even Alan Silvestri would have provided a much more versatile score, making Apollo 13 into a real space opera.
Thanks to the intuition of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Apollo 13 had become an outstanding mix between fiction and documentary. The filmmakers and actors had done everything possible to make their movie as authentic as possible and succeeded brilliantly, which would not have been possible without the generous cooperation of NASA and its astronauts. Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and also Tom Hanks had fulfilled one of their greatest dreams - they may not have made it completely to space, but during the production of the movie they sure came pretty close.
Although Apollo 13 was not exactly mainstream popcorn cinema and is surprisingly sophisticated, the movie became a huge financial and critical success. With a reported budget somewhere between 55 and 65 million dollars, the production was still relatively cheap compared to other blockbusters of that time and managed to take at least three times that in the United States alone at the boxoffice. The movie also managed to renew interest in the history of spaceflight, something which The Right Stuff had not really been able to achieve almost fifteen years previously. Apollo 13 was nominated for nine Oscars, but only won for editing and sound, but was showered with praise and many other awards.
Seven years after its premiere, Apollo 13 had a little revival when the movie was shown on the giant screens of the IMAX cinemas. Because the 70mm IMAX film had a runtime limit of about two hours back then, Ron Howard had taken the opportunity to re-edit his movie into a new version 24 minutes shorter than the original. The IMAX incarnation of Apollo 13 was not a randomly shortened version of the movie, but a well-conceived "Director's Cut" tightening the plot and leaving out some of the more emotional scenes. For the different format of the IMAX screens, the image was also not cropped on the sides, but thanks to the Super35 format opened vertically. This made the IMAX version a completely different movie than the original cut, but was not meant to supercede it, but just to be an alternative.
Today Apollo 13 remains one of the best spaceflight movies in film history and deserves its place right next to Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff and Al Reinert's For All Mankind. Apollo 13 had also started something even much bigger - after Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Tom Hanks had made film history with their unique spaceflight movie, they quickly teamed up again to tell the rest of the story. After more than three years of preparation, their epic 12-hour television series From The Earth To The Moon, produced for HBO, was finished - it encompassed the whole Apollo program and even re-told the story of Apollo 13 from a different perspective, fully closing the circle. Without the movie paving the way, the television series would not have been possible.
Apollo 13 had already been released on DVD in 1998 as a special edition containing the movie, two commentary tracks and the documentary produced during the production of the movie, but the image quality was dissapointing even in these early days of the format and the european editions unfortunately lost the documentary. Universal had finally followed up with a 2-Disc Anniversary Edition in 2005, which not only improved the image quality, but also included the IMAX version and a couple more extras.
This article reviews the Region 1 release of the 2-Disc Anniversary Edition released in April 2005. While this American release also has the alternate IMAX version of the movie, it was left off the European editions, but those contain for the first time the documentary which had been previously missing. The amazing image quality of the IMAX version are worth the American release, but unfortunately it is only available on DVD and not the later released HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, which otherwise replicate all the extras of the DVDs.