Apollo 13 appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though generally attractive, the transfer suffered from a few more problems than I’d like.
Sharpness usually seemed fairly crisp and detailed, although a few wider shots occasionally betrayed some vague softness. Those instances remained minor, though. I linked the slightly lack of definition to the mild edge enhancement that sometimes crept into the transfer. The haloes weren’t severe, but they were noticeable, especially during the movie’s first act; once we spent more time in the darkness of space, they were less obvious.
Moiré effects and jagged edges failed to create concerns, and very few source flaws became obvious. I noticed a speck here or there, but not anything to create distractions. Grain looked a bit heavier than one might expect, though that likely was an outgrowth of the Super 35 photography; films shot that way usually look grainy when compared to flicks made with other processes.
Colors represented the natural look of the piece and seemed nicely realistic and accurate. The film got the slightly garish fashion sense of the era down well, and it replicated the hues well; they occasionally threatened to become too heavy but remained fine. Black levels seemed deep and dark without any excessive heaviness, and shadow detail looked appropriately opaque. The image was always more than watchable, and it often looked quite good, but it seemed a bit too “processed” and unnatural for a grade above a “C+”.
I felt more satisfied with the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack of Apollo 13. The soundfield seemed wonderfully detailed and lively throughout the whole film. The sequences that related to the spacecraft stood out the most strongly, of course, but even "ordinary" scenes in mission control or in homes sounded realistic and active. The forward speakers were in constant use, with a great deal of ambient sound and music coming from the right and the left.
The surrounds didn't get quite as good a workout, but they rarely seemed idle. James Horner's score and lots of ambient reinforcement emitted from the rears. Split surround usage wasn't frequent but it appeared appropriate. The sound designers avoided any "gimmicky" effects in that regard, and the whole program held together well.
Audio quality also appeared positive. A smidgen of edginess occurred, but speech usually sounded clear and natural, with no concerns related to intelligibility. Effects were always accurate and realistic, with very little evidence of distortion. Some of the usual suspects such as explosions and jet engines display minor crackling, but that's almost inevitable.
Music appeared very dynamic and clean, with smooth highs and some deep lows. Across the board, bass sounded excellent. The track will give your subwoofer a workout. Overall, the soundtrack of Apollo seemed terrific.
How do the picture and audio of this Blu-ray compare to those of the 2005 DVD? I thought the two soundtracks were similar, but the DTS-HD mix got a boost in terms of vivacity and accuracy. It added a bit more pep in its step and seemed more realistic.
As for the visuals, the Blu-ray was superior because its best moments exceeded the DVD’s highlights. However, it wasn’t as big an improvement as I’d like; the various issues I mentioned meant it lacked the smoothness and definition I’d expect from Blu-ray. It may be better, but it’s not a great deal better.
Most of the 2005 DVD’s extras repeat here, along with some new elements. The set includes two separate audio commentaries, and the first comes from director Ron Howard as he offers a running, screen-specific chat. Howard provides a lot of background about the film.
Howard mixes a nice sampling of remarks about both the technical aspects of making the movie and the historical facts behind the picture. He spends too much time telling us when shots were done aboard the "Vomit Comet" and when they weren't, but overall this is an enjoyable and informative track.
The second commentary presents astronaut Jim Lovell and his wife Marilyn. This one starts slowly, as in the early moments, Jim does little more than say "remember that?" to Marilyn. However, once the two of them get more comfortable with the format and the movie's action heats up it becomes more compelling. Jim offers a lot of good details about the factual side of the mission; he points out how the movie differs from reality and helps fill in some of the gaps.
Marilyn doesn't say much but she does provide a welcome emotional component to the track. Unsurprisingly, Jim doesn't deviate from the detached flight jock tone during his comments, so it was nice to have someone attach some feeling to the events. All in all, it's a fine commentary; as with Frank McCourt's track on Angela's Ashes, it's very cool to be able to hear the person being Depicted on screen describe the events.
Next up is a 58-minute and three-second documentary about the film called Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13. This is a truly terrific piece of work. The program involves Howard, Jim Lovell, Marilyn Lovell, producer Brian Grazer, executive producer Todd Hallowell, visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, lead digital compositor Mark Forker, astronauts Fred Haise, Dave Scott, Apollo 13 flight director Gerald Griffin, command module systems controller Sy Lieberglot, Apollo 13 flight dynamics officer Jerry Bostick, mission control director Gene Krantz, Tom Kelly of Grumman, NASA mission operations director Christopher Kraft, daughters Susan Lovell Williams and Margaret Haise, command systems module controller John Aaron, and actors Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, and Ed Harris. The show offers a mix of film clips, interview segments and archival footage from the era itself.
That latter aspect is maybe the most compelling. The documentary starts with a clip from Johnny Carson and "The Tonight Show", ends with a speech from Nixon about the mission and hits on all sorts of other great material in between those points as we find out about the actual flight and its issues. For movie material, we also learn about how the project made it to the screen, casting, shooting in the “Vomit Comet”, the quest for accuracy and telling the story, approaches to the various roles, visual effects, and general production information. The show balances historical observations and data about the flight along with movie-making notes to create a very informative and enjoyable documentary.
Two more documentaries follow. Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond runs 48 minutes and 24 seconds and looks at issues connected to space exploration. We see archival material and hear modern comments from Lovell, NASA astronauts Shannon W. Lucid, Roger K. Crouch, NASA astronomer Ann Kinney, NASA Mars scientist James Garvin, and NASA solar system scientist Colleen Hartman.
The program starts with the roots of the “space race” between the US and the USSR and continues with the development of NASA and the “Mercury Seven”. We see the early achievements and setbacks as well as the push to get to the moon with the Gemini and Apollo programs, the Apollo 11 landing, NASA’s quest to examine the rest of the solar system, close-up looks at Mars and other exploratory issues, additional space flights and problems like the Challenger explosion.
“Beyond” presents a pretty good overview of the various issues. It gets into manned flights and looks into the present and future of space exploration. It feels a bit dry at times, as it lacks much flair, but it communicates the material concisely and well.
Finally, we get the 12-minute and 13-second Lucky 13: The Astronauts’ Story. This “Dateline” segment offers more archival materials, some film clips, and remarks from Jim Lovell, Marilyn Lovell, Fred Haise, Sy Liebergott, John Aaron and Gene Krantz. “Story” presents a quick overview of the events that occurred during the Apollo 13 mission. It’s a good little synopsis, but it brings almost nothing new to the table. I think it just rehashes the same information heard elsewhere.
For something new, we go to U-Control. This allows for picture-in-picture information that goes down two paths. “The Apollo Era” looks at aspects of the period in which the movie takes place, while “Tech-Splanations” delivers information about the space flight and other connected concepts. Most of the material comes from text, though we also get computer animated demonstrations accompanied by narration.
Across both of these components, we learn a moderate amount about the topics at hand, but they tend to be a bit frustrating in execution. In an annoying twist, you can’t run both at the same time, so if you want to watch both, you either have to sit through the movie twice or you have to constantly access the “U-Control” menu to jump from one segment to another. The latter is the more effective way, but it’s not efficient; the disc doesn’t allow you to quickly head back to this menu, so the amount of button-mashing gets old before long.
Is the information worth the effort? Not really. Of the two, “Tech-Splanations” is the superior one. I like the animations, and the facts about the space flights add some good background. “Era” is less compelling, but since the absence of animations makes it less obtrusive, you could easily watch it while you view the film and it probably won’t distract you. That’s what I’d recommend: view the movie with “Era” activated and then go back later to jump around among the tech material. Don’t expect greatness from either, though.
What does the Blu-ray lose from the 2005 DVD? It drops a trailer as well as an IMAX version of the film. Since the latter edited the film and compromised its aspect ratio, I don’t miss it. The isolated score from the original 1998 DVD remains MIA.
Apollo 13 remains an excellent film that provides suspense, drama and emotion all with dignity and flair. The Blu-ray provides erratic but generally good picture along with excellent audio and a nice collection of supplements. Though this is the best version of the movie on the market, the picture concerns make it a bit of a disappointment; it’s a nice enough disc but not the killer edition I’d like.
To rate this film visit the 2005 DVD review of APOLLO 13