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"Houston, we have a problem."

Film
July 20th 1969 (July 21st for our UK and Europe readers, but I’ll keep to US time to stay in line with the film!): After a near five-day journey the crew of Apollo 11’s lunar module, ‘Eagle’, step onto the Sea of Tranquillity to become the first humans to set foot on the moon. The entire world looked on in awe—except the Russians, who were a tad upset that they didn’t get there first—and Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) looked forward to the day when he and his crew would get the chance to go there themselves on Apollo 14.

He didn’t have as long to wait as he thought. When Alan Shepard was held back from commanding Apollo 13, Lovell, Haise (Bill Paxton) and Mattingly (Gary Sinise) were bumped up to Prime Crew and would be going to the moon in April 1970. Or would they?

Apollo 13: Special Edition
With Lovell’s wife, Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), a little worried that the thirteenth Apollo spacecraft would be entering the moon’s orbit around the 13th of April, and with omens such as Lovell’s car becoming unreliable and Marilyn’s wedding ring going down the drain, something else would not go to plan. Coming into contact with Measles only days before launch, Ken Mattingly is dropped from the mission. With etiquette usually seeing all of the crew replaced in these instances, Lovell decides instead that Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) will be brought in as a last minute replacement. But Mattingly would still play a vital part in the mission.

Clearing the tower at 13:13 on April 11th 1970, a mission that the American public had lost interest in would become one of NASA’s greatest challenges a mere two days later—and the whole world would be watching again. With time—and oxygen—running out, Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and the ground crew at Mission Control would have to pull out all the stops to bring Apollo 13 home.

Ron Howard impressed a lot of people with his version of the events surrounding the Apollo 13 mission when the movie was released back in 1995. Basing the movie around Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger’s book Apollo 13: Lost Moon, screenwriters William Broyles Jr. & Al Reinert crafted a drama fit for the big screen without taking artistic license too far.

Truly weightless shots filmed in an aircraft, mixed with some teetering by the actors and very realistic special effects bring the film to life. The acting is fairly solid, although there are some moments that seem a little forced, but for me the standouts are Kathleen Quinlan and, in a smaller role, Ed Harris. For once the Oscar committee and I agree to some extent, as they were both nominated for ‘Best Supporting’ Oscars. Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton do stand up jobs in the face of some tricky filming situations, and Tom Hanks is fine as Lovell, but I’m not his biggest fan and he still seems at times like he is playing, well, Tom Hanks.

There are moments that did not occur, or at least did not happen exactly as portrayed, but even then the spirit remains. The use of archive footage for the TV inserts brings a true depth of realism to the proceedings to counter this, though. The majority of the film is indeed faithful to the events and only a bit of in-depth research (or a good listen to the commentaries!) will reveal it to be the dramatisation that it is. That said, the tensions both on the ground and in space are portrayed to a tee. The editing is tight, the sound design works brilliantly (both won Oscars) and for those that do not know the story inside out there is little to fault here.

Apollo 13: Special Edition
I missed out on all the fuss of the Apollo missions, and the last man on the Moon left it behind when I was less than sixteen months old. I had to wait for the Shuttle missions to really have some space flight to get my teeth into, and this film does manage to at least shed some light on what I missed. As such, Apollo 13 comes highly recommended, but I’d also recommend having a little scout around the internet afterwards to get the complete picture.

Video
With the recent US edition boasting a transfer mastered from a new High Definition print, hopes would more than likely have been high for the same treatment over here. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. I have not been able to compare this to the previous UK release, but with some minor problems evident in the presentation here if this is a new print then someone could have done a better job.

That’s not to say that what we get here is bad—it isn’t. One complaint I have read about the US release is that in order to get two versions of the film and the extras into the two disc set, the film itself shares disc one with one of the documentaries. Disc one here, however, houses only the film and with an average bit-rate of 7.76Mb/sec the anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer looks as good as it could without a re-master. There is a little frame jitter on the opening titles, along with a little haloing that is also evident towards the end of the film on the aircraft carrier, but these are minor problems. Some pixel crawl creeps in on the blinds in the Lovell household at around 1h47m28s, and again on some monitor vents in Mission Control, but these don’t really detract from the overall picture.

There are some contrast issues during the film, though. In certain scenes, there are minor fluctuations in the background colouring on walls and the like (an example being behind Marilyn at around 5 minutes in), but although only slight it can be distracting.

These things aside, I had no such problems with the overall look of the film. The palette is natural, with blacks and skin tones accurately displayed, and detail is generally fine. Signs in the background, and details on the 60s clothing on show in the party at the start of the film do not appear to cause any visual defects.

Subtitles in the many languages offered are clear and easy to read, but one thing that apparently annoys some people out there with other discs is where the captions in the film are player generated—and they are here, too. The full subtitle tracks carry the captions in the appropriate language, and there are also a couple of ‘caption only’ tracks to partner the English and Hungarian soundtracks.

Apollo 13: Special Edition
Finally, the layer change sits mid-scene at 1h03m04s in chapter 7, and it could have been placed better.

If, as I suspect, this is the same transfer given a new release then this short-changes everyone in the territories that it is destined for. With a new High Definition transfer available to work from this was a chance to beat the US edition with the region two having more room for the film to breathe. Comments on another site mention that the new US release has changed the placing of the chapter stops but skipping to chapter four here still takes you direct to the take-off. Not a definite sign that this version has not been re-mastered, but a big hint. This isn’t a disaster by a long shot, but it is definitely a missed opportunity for a stellar presentation.

Audio
After being deprived of a DTS track in the UK while the US had a stand-alone DTS disc to partner the old release, the new versions see the UK version trumping the region one.

There is plenty of scope in the movie for some terrific bass, and equally for some nice tinkling sounds with breaking glass and the like, and the DTS track caresses you with the clarity of the treble before delivering some heavy punches to the gut. The first decent rumble at 8m42s doesn’t even use the subwoofer and it still feels good out of the main channels, but skip down to around 12m46s and the glass, alarms and thuds of flying capsule doors fill the soundstage impressively. And then there’s the take off.

Get on down to chapter four and within a few seconds the subwoofer will have the neighbours wondering if there are a couple of trucks parked outside, just after hoping they had left a few minutes ago when the crawler was on screen at 19m02s. There are a few such occasions throughout the film, and each delivers a good, deep rumble.

Comparing it to the two Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks the DTS track wins every time, but only just. Some of the bangs don’t follow through as well when listening to the Dolby tracks and sometimes sound a little clipped. With the DTS track rendered at 768Kb/sec—double that of the English and Hungarian Dolby Digital tracks, it perhaps isn’t that surprising. The Hungarian track also suffers from the dubbing, and that some of the subwoofer work has been lost in the translation—particularly with the aforementioned crawler.

Gushing aside, the vocals can sound a little bass-heavy in the mix and aren’t quite as natural as they could be on any of the tracks, but this is easily forgiven. Go for the DTS if you can, but you shouldn’t be too disappointed with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track either.

Apollo 13: Special Edition
Extras
Stretching this new edition across two discs has bumped up the feature count from the previous release, whilst also dropping some of the fluff.

The two commentaries make their way over untouched. The first—with director Ron Howard—is one of the more enjoyable ‘single person’ commentaries I’ve listened to over the years and Ron manages to stay enthusiastic throughout. There is a lot of information here, from how shots were realised to the creative decisions necessary to give someone their due or to help the narrative flow, which meant that there are some elements in the movie that never actually happened. There are moments of silence, and a propensity to sit through a scene telling us which bits were on the stage and which were truly weightless in the KC-135, but overall it’s a really good track.

The second track features Jim Lovell and his wife, Marilyn. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but it doesn’t take long before Jim is praising Ron’s artistic decisions or putting a few facts straight. Marilyn does not feature as heavily, but they are both clearly happy with the film and it is effective enough in places for Marilyn to get a little emotional all these years later. I think I enjoyed this track more because of the personal viewpoint that Jim and Marilyn had of the events, and it is nice that the record could be put straight on a few events and on some technical inaccuracies.

In an admirable move, both commentary tracks are also subtitled in most of the languages that are available for the main feature. And there the similarity with the old edition ends...

Wandering on over to the second disc, we find the meat of this release with three documentary pieces—all presented in 4:3, with Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English audio and subtitled as per the list you’ll find over on the right of this page. Strangely though, the list of subtitle tracks available on Disc 2 is not the same as those available on disc one.

‘Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13’ (58m07s) is a journey through the making of the film, but also serves as a decent catalogue of the original events. Filmed back in 1996, it features input from the actors and crew, as well as the astronauts and Mission Control staff (some of them archive interviews, some new). The challenges of the mission, and of the quest to do it justice on the big screen, are all given an airing here. This is easily one of the more in-depth and entertaining efforts at a ‘Making of’ that I’ve watched (not counting The Lord of the Rings efforts), and it’s good to finally have a UK release with it included. It’s just a pity that the powers that be have seen fit to provide thirteen chapter stops but neglected to drop in a chapter selection screen or two.

‘Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond’ (48m27s) is a whistle-stop tour of Man’s mission to touch the stars over the last forty-odd years. Split into five parts—‘The Space Race’, ’Race to the Moon’, ‘Grand Tour of the Universe’, ‘Permanent Human Presence’, and ‘ISS and Beyond’—this 2003 documentary charts the main events, but is a little too short to give anything great depth. It is, however, a good run through history and makes a good companion piece to ‘Lost Moon’.

‘Lucky 13: The Astronauts’ Story’ (12m14s) was originally shown as part of Dateline NBC back on 29th July 1995. As the runtime suggests, this is not the most complex of pieces but for those who want a quick summary of how things went down back in April 1970 then look no further.

Apollo 13: Special Edition
Finally, we get a disappointingly presented theatrical trailer (2m26s). Like the rest of the extras it is presented in 4:3, with Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English audio and all the subtitles, but if you are putting together a Special Edition where is the ratio-correct anamorphic presentation? While we’re at it, why no 5.1 sound with some TV Spots thrown in?

All in all, this is a definite improvement over the extras on the 2002 release, and some minor quibbles do not change that. The commentaries are well worth a listen, and for anyone into the exploration of space the two main documentaries are good additions.

Overall
Universal has taken the chance to re-release Apollo 13, and even if you have the original in your collection an upgrade needs some serious consideration. The sound is superb, the picture better than average, and the extras actually worth your time.

With the recent US version having a new High Definition transfer, I still believe that that may not be the case here. The picture is really good though and is probably helped by having the movie on a disc by itself. The region two version reviewed here, which is also coded for regions four and five, seems to provide the better experience—especially as its North American counterpart only has the DTS track on the cut-down IMAX version on disc two, and the main feature shares space with one of the documentaries.

If anyone can say for sure, I would like to know if any work was done on the print used here, but either way it is a worthwhile purchase.


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