Call it retrospective reprieve. After their flirtations with the Dan Brown industry, Apollo 13 serves a reminder that Tom Hanks and Ron Howard cooked more than turkeys in their prime, against the odds at that. Their Oscar-favoured neo-docu-drama about the ill-fated moon mission could’ve been a disaster. You know the ending. The homefront laydeez do little more than pine for their men. A mournful horn drips soundtrack syrup. And docu-hit In The Shadow Of The Moon bests Howard’s oft-pedestrian visuals for awe. Even so, 40 years since “something broke” on Jim Lovell’s ship, Howard’s steady treatment of Houston’s improvised fix for the “problem” could be the director’s finest hour.
His cast certainly bring it in smoothly. As Lovell, Hanks gives solid, understated leadership to fellow spacemen Fred Haise (Bill Paxton, channelling Aliens’ Pvt Hudson) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon, fun as a bachelor boy). As Nasa man Greg Kranz, though, it’s Ed Harris who owns the film, lending the script’s can-do platitudes a persuasive punch.
Give or take the odd cutaway to sky, earth and lunar soil, Howard smartly cleaves close to character. Sure, damage is incurred by the sidelining of historical context. But Apollo 13 is a film about confined space rather than outer space, the conjured claustrophobia of its three-men-in-a-tin-can set-up keeping you gripped even though you know the outcome.
But does that fly on Blu-ray? Surprisingly, yes. Capsule confinement and “the big black ocean” contrast with added clout, while in-capsule detail captivates too. Earthbound scenes look mundane in comparison, but lift off is a screen quaker.
Orbiting extras don’t dazzle so surely. SD-edition carry overs aside, the sole notable new extra is U Control, a pop-up option split into nuggets on Apollo-era issues and fashions and Tech-Splanations unpacking the on-screen science. Combine U Control with a talk track and it fleshes out the film, but some inside voices would have added juice. BD Live functionality is present but the “Social Blu” function is surely only for those who aren’t social networked out.
If you didn’t buy on SD, though, the carry-overs are solid. Two hour-long docs buckle up alongside a 12-minuter featuring Lovell, Kranz et al. Two talk tracks cover the film’s main themes: Jim and Marilyn Lovell engage in homely exchanges on one and, on the other, Howard ambles from historical info to the “emotional intensity” powering Harris. The film’s heroics could have used a bit more of that “intensity”, but credit is due: Howard landed this surely enough to merit return trips.