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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 11/11/98



From the Earth to the Moon
1998 (1998) - Imagine Entertainment / HBO (HBO)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits



Film Rating: A+
Winner of three 1998 Emmy awards, including Outstanding Miniseries. From the Earth to the Moon features a first-rate ensemble cast, and is arguably the best retelling of the human story behind the Apollo moon missions ever produced. Thoroughly researched, highly accurate, gripping, and completely entertaining.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/A+
Superb picture and solid audio quality throughout. And this DVD release boasts an entire disc dedicated solely to supplementary materials, accessible via your DVD-player and DVD-ROM drive (on both PCs AND Macs). This is the new standard by which all future DVD special editions will be measured.

Overall Rating: A+
Yes, it's pricy at around $100. But you get substance for every dollar spent on this four disc set. Whether you're a fan of NASA, or the DVD format, you won't want to miss this collector's set. Buy it if you can, rent it if you can't. Absolutely a must see.

Specs and Features

Approx. 639 mins plus supplemental material, not rated, full frame (1.33:1), 3 single-sided, RSDL dual-layered DVD discs (with 4 episodes each), 1 single-sided, single-layered, hybrid DVD/DVD-ROM disc (with supplements and extras - see review below for details), custom slip-case/fold-out packaging, animated film-themed menu screens with sound effects, scene access (various chapters per episode), languages: English (DD 5.1), Spanish (DD 1.0), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Close Captioned

"Come and take a trip in my rocket ship, we'll have a lovely afternoon..."

Review

Few events in human history have had such lasting and far-reaching effects as the Apollo moon missions. A thousand years from now, people looking back at the 20th century won't remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or the O.J. Simpson trial. They won't remember Watergate, or Iran Contra. What they will remember, is that in this century, the human race fought two world wars, and survived them. They'll remember that we discovered nuclear power, and (hopefully) survived that too. They'll remember that we invented the computer, molecular biology, and nanotechnology - all forces which will have unimaginable effect in shaping our future. And they will remember, that on a momentous day in July of 1969, a human being first set foot on another planet... and for one amazing moment, the whole world looked up in awe and wonder.

No film or television project has quite so effectively captured the spirit of those heady days, as the Tom Hanks/HBO collaborative effort, From the Earth to the Moon. Certainly there have been better documents of the events themselves - the technical struggles, and the history of the time. But no program has so closely measured the human testament - the hundreds of thousands of Americans who made walking on the moon possible, and the often dramatic effect the effort had on their personal lives. Based, at least in part, on Andrew Chaikin's impressively comprehensive book A Man on the Moon, this series looks at the race to the moon a piece at a time, separating the period into twelve hour-long episodes. Each episode has its own director and writer. Each has its own unique style and feel.

Other than Hanks (who appears in the last episode, and introduces many of them), there are no major movie stars in From the Earth to the Moon (although Sally Field does direct an episode). There is, however, an outstanding (and quite large) ensemble cast of both television and film actors. You will recognize scores of the performers here, among them Rita Wilson (the real-life Mrs. Hanks), Cary Elwes, Mark Harmon, Tim Daly, Elizabeth Perkins, Chris Isaak, Blythe Danner, Kevin Pollak, Lane Smith, Peter Horton, Adam Baldwin, Al Franken, Ann Cusack, and Jobeth Williams.

From the Earth to the Moon was produced with the unparalleled cooperation of NASA itself, and many of the individuals involved in the actual events participated to ensure the program's accuracy. Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott actually served as a technical consultant throughout the project, and was always on set during filming. Some $65 million dollars were spent on the production, over 3 years, making From the Earth to the Moon among the most lavish and expensive mini-series yet produced. And executive producer Tom Hanks brought the full measure of his intense personal interest in the space program to bear on the series, directing one episode, starring in another, and writing (at least in part) four more.

Let me start by saying a few words about the overall quality of this DVD set. The video presented here is excellent throughout the series. Shot on film, but produced on video for cable television, the series features lots of digital video effects, which give some portions of the program a bit of a digital look. But this is by design in post production - some new footage has been enhanced digitally to look like archival film, and lots of actual archival material (of varying quality) is used here as well. But the MPEG-2 compression is extremely well done. The special effects, including many completely digital images of the spacecraft and the lunar surface, look crisp and clear. Color rendition and contrast range are also excellent, with rich hues and deep blacks visible. The four disc set also uses a tasteful (and graphically well done) menu system, that is both visually pleasing and easy to navigate - lots of eye candy to get you in the appropriate viewing mood.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is quite solid. There is very clear sound definition, including both dialogue and sound effects, even if there isn't quite as much use of directional effects as I would have liked. There is, however, lots of deep, room-filling bass - my subwoofer got a very thorough workout.

My only complaint with this set, is the packaging. Don't get me wrong - it looks fantastic. The set comes in a metallic silver slip case (see the picture above), and is enclosed in an elaborate, book-like, five-panel custom fold-out case (4 of the panels hold the discs, and a 5th holds a nicely-done, 14-page booklet). The problem here is durability. The case is made of stiff paper material (similar to a Snapper case), but with so many folds, I doubt it will stand up to extended wear and tear. It also takes fingerprints a bit easily. Personally, I would have much preferred a variation on the Amaray keep case, but this is a minor complaint. Note that individual Snapper cases are being made available to video retailers, for rental use.

Now... let's talk content. Given that this is a four disc set, and that there is such an impressive volume of materials to consider here, I thought the only proper way to do this review, would be to examine each disc individually. So off we go...

Disc One of From the Earth to the Moon, contains the first four episodes of the series. Following the HBO legal disclaimer screen and the HBO DVD logo, a nifty animated title graphic plays and then reveals a main menu screen (which is similar on all of the first three discs). This main menu allows you to select from the following options: Play Movie, Parts 1-4, Languages, and Subtitles. Play Movie starts the first episode, and the disc will play through all episodes continuously. The Languages and Subtitles options are self-explanatory (note that you CAN change these selections during the program, with the audio and subtitle buttons on your remote). Parts 1-4 allows you to select an individual episode.

Upon selecting an episode, you are taken to a sub-menu screen, which is graphically unique to that particular episode. Each of these sub-menus allows you to play the episode itself, select from a list of program chapters, or view that episode's unique list of cast and crew. The episodes contained on Disc One are as follows:

Part 1 - Can We Do This?

Directed by Tom Hanks, this first episode starts the series nicely, beginning with newsreel footage of the first launch of a human into space - Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. We learn that the Russians' goal is nothing short of landing a man on the moon, and the American space program is woefully behind. Soon however, American astronaut Alan Shepard (played by Ted Levine, whom you may remember as the serial killer Buffalo Bill, from Silence of the Lambs), makes a successful, sub-orbital hop into space. A little more than a year later, with but a few successful Mercury flights completed, President Kennedy announces a startling goal - America must walk on the moon within nine years, and beat the Russians there at all cost.

The task of doing this, falls upon hard-pressed NASA administrator James Webb (Dan Lauria - Kevin's father from The Wonder Years). We are soon made to understand the sheer audacity and difficulty of the task at hand. And as we watch the space program develop through Projects Mercury and Gemini, we are introduced to many of those individuals (both engineers and astronauts) that will bring Kennedy's vision to reality, and who will appear throughout the series.

Part 2 - Apollo One

One of my personal favorites, Apollo One looks at the tragic launch pad fire, which claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA is scrambling to launch the first of the Apollo test flights, and everyone involved has 'moon fever'. In the mad scramble to meet the tight flight schedule, and given the complexity of the effort, mistakes are inevitable... and in this case, fatal. After the accident occurs, NASA personnel and civilian contractors struggle to come to terms with the accident, and begin the tedious and unpleasant process of determining what went wrong.

Three performances impress in this installment: Kevin Pollack (as Apollo program manager Joe Shea, who grapples with the belief that, had he been in the capsule for the test as originally planned, he could have put out the fire), James Rebhorn (as a North American executive struggling under intense pressure from NASA to build the Apollo spacecraft quickly), and Nick Searcy (as Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury astronauts, and head of NASA's astronaut office, who must deal with the loss of his best friend, Grissom).

Part 3 - We Have Cleared the Tower

With the Apollo spacecraft's technical problems hopefully resolved, NASA prepares to fly the first manned Apollo mission - Apollo 7. Assigned to lead the crew on this mission, is Mercury veteran Wally Schirra (Mark Harmon). There's a tense atmosphere at NASA, as everyone grapples with lingering fears and doubts after the tragic fire. And as the astronauts and other personnel race to ensure that nothing will go wrong on Apollo 7, a TV documentary crew (led by Peter Horton of TV's thirtysomething) scrutinizes their every move.

Here we take an interesting look at the personal lives of the astronauts, particularly Wally Schirra, for whom Apollo 7 will be his final mission before retiring. We also get to see some interesting behind-the-scenes stories, including a young nurse that works closely with the astronauts, and Guenter Wendt, whom the astronauts refer to as 'the Furher of the launch pad'.

Part 4 - 1968

1968 was an extremely turbulent year on Planet Earth. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and war protests were breaking out all across America. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and rioting occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, further eroding any public sense of security. But in late December, just as the year appeared a total loss, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first human beings to orbit the moon. And on Christmas Eve, these three men gave humanity its first view of the whole Earth from space - a dazzling vision... and a reason to hope.

This is another of the series' best episodes, full of great drama. As Apollo 8 slips behind the dark side of the moon, out of communication range, there's tremendous tension back on Earth. Will their rocket engine fire, gently nudging the spacecraft into lunar orbit? Would it work again, less than a day later, to send them home again? Frank Borman's wife (Rita Wilson) is prepared for the worst. But as the astronauts round the dark side, they encounter a stunning sight: Earthrise. Man, what I'd give to see that....

On to Disc Two, which contains the middle four episodes of the series. The menuing scheme here is identical to the first disc of the set, with only very minor, cosmetic differences. The main menu screen has very subtle graphic additions in the background, enhancing the theme of the building drama of the series. And here you can choose from Parts 5-8, as follows:

Part 5 - Spider

All right, so Kennedy said we've got to land on the moon. How exactly do you go about designing, building and testing the spacecraft that will do it? The pressure's high - the Lunar Module (LEM) simply must work the first time it flies on Apollo 9, if NASA is to beat the Russians to the moon. But Tom Kelly and the engineers in the Grumman Engineering Bullpen are just the guys for the job.

Spider is my second favorite episode. The screenwriting, acting and direction here accomplish what I find to be an absolutely amazing feat: making the mind-numbingly technical subject of spacecraft design thoroughly entertaining... and even noble. Matt Craven (L.A. Doctors) is perfect as Tom Kelly, the Grumman executive who must get the LEM done on time, and then like any parent, must let it go. And you might recognize Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg from Murphy Brown), Clint Howard (Ron Howard's brother, who appeared in Apollo 13), and Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) in this episode as well.

Part 6 - Mare Tranquilitatis

This is it. With a mere six months left before Kennedy's end of the decade deadline, all of the blood, sweat and tears have lead to this mission - Apollo 11. If all goes well, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin will become the first human beings to set foot on another planet, while Michael Collins orbits high above. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the whole world will stop to watch...

Directed by Frank Marshall, Mare Tranquilitatis (which gets its name from the region of the moon on which Apollo 11 landed), looks at the tensions leading up to the landing, and the breathless attention given to it by most of the human race. It also examines the very human emotions of the astronauts themselves - Armstrong (Tony Goldwyn) seems to have difficulty acknowledging the historic nature of the mission, while Aldrin (Bryan Cranston) longs to be the first to walk on the surface.

Part 7 - That's All There Is

Everyone knows the names of the first two men to walk on the moon, but do you remember who was number three and four? No matter... at least not to Pete Conrad and Al Bean. They're just glad to be going in the first place, with their good buddy Dick Gordon along to mind the spacecraft while they're on the surface. And while Armstrong and Aldrin only spent a few hours on the moon, Conrad and Bean will be staying for a while, and showing folks how to do it in style...

This story of Apollo 12 is, by far, my favorite installment of the series. A mission for the everyman in all of us, That's All There Is gives us a chance to see three blue collar guys, good friends all, experiencing the most amazing time in their lives. It's surprisingly funny, touching and right on target. Good old 'Beano' (Dave Foley from News Radio) even gets to save the day. You can almost imagine yourself in his shoes. First rate.

Part 8 - We Interrupt This Program

Most of us have seen Apollo 13, so we know the story of this near-tragic mission fairly well. With this in mind, screenwriters Peter Osturland and Amy Brooke Baker have taken a decidedly different tack to this retelling of the doomed flight of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert.

In We Interrupt This Program, we follow the story of Apollo 13, as told by veteran TV newsman and space reporter Emmitt Seaborn (Lane Smith from Lois and Clark, here playing a character based on real-life journalist Walter Cronkite). Seaborn struggles with a public that has lost interest in the space program... that is until something goes wrong. He must also deal with the new blood at the network - a young, rising-star reporter, who is more concerned with getting the scoop, than upholding journalistic integrity.

Disc Three contains the last four episodes of the series. As on the second disc, the main menu screen of Disc Three features subtly added imagery. The episodes available here, Parts 9-12, are as follows:

Part 9 - For Miles and Miles

Shortly after becoming the first American in space, astronaut Alan Shepard (Ted Levine) was grounded from active status because of an inner-ear disorder that caused severe attacks of vertigo. But after watching crew after crew leave the Earth on Gemini and Apollo, Shepard decides to risk an experimental ear surgery that could pave the way for a new mission - a trip to the moon as commander of Apollo 14.

Part 10 - Galileo Was Right

The goal of Apollo 15 is geology - to gather the best rock samples from a region of the moon rich and varied in geologic history. If the astronauts gather the right samples, the result for scientists will be nothing short of a look back into the very history of the moon itself. Astronauts Dave Scott (Brett Cullen, whom you may recognize from Apollo 13) and Jim Irwin will even have a lunar rover to haul the rocks back to the LEM. But time on the surface will be critical, and the astronauts are... well, astronauts. They know nothing about geology, and couldn't tell one rock from another. Enter Farouk El-Baz and Lee Silver (David Clennon - Miles Drentell of thirtysomething), a pair of eclectic scientists who must whip the astronauts into shape... and make them into world-class rock hunters.

Part 11 - The Original Wives Club

Sally Field directs this installment of the series, which follows the unsung heroism of the wives of the Apollo astronauts. The demands of having to maintain a brave face for the cameras, placed tremendous strain on their lives and their marriages. And with every mission, came the risk and unspoken dread of another accident. Rita Wilson, Wendy Crewson, Elizabeth Perkins and Ann Cusack star, and Tom Hanks co-writes.

Part 12 - Le Voyage Dans La Lune

All of NASA's hopes for the future (more moon missions, a lunar base, a manned mission to Mars) were dashed when Congress decided to pull the plug on its support and funding. Apollo 17 would be the last flight to the moon for the foreseeable future.

In this final, stirring installment of From the Earth to the Moon, writer Tom Hanks tells a tale to keep the vision alive. As astronaut Gene Cernan takes mankind's last step on the lunar surface, we learn of the extraordinary efforts of visionary filmmaker George Melies. It was Melies, in 1902, who first brought to life for audiences, the story of mankind's greatest adventure... the story of a trip from the Earth to the moon.

Disc Four is completely unique in the collection. With all of the program material contained on the first three discs, this disc is comprised entirely of supplemental material. In fact, the purpose of Disc Four, is to contain a veritable encyclopedia of information on space and spaceflight.

Upon inserting the disc in your DVD player, you see the same HBO disclaimer screen and title animation. What follows is a new, unique animated menu screen, in the 'road signs in outer space' theme. Unlike the program discs, footage from the series plays in the background of the menu here, along with the series theme music. Several choices are available, the first of which is Mission Control.

Mission Control allows you to play an excellent, 30 minute HBO "First Look" Featurette. Filled with interviews and behind-the-scenes information, this featurette gives us a sense of the tremendous efforts undertaken to recreate the Apollo missions. For example, that lunar module seen in Spider, and on the surface of the moon? It's real - the refurbished LEM that was to have flown on Apollo 18. To recreate the 1/6 gravity of the moon, actors were harnessed to giant helium balloons, adding just the right amount of bounce to their step. "We're trying to show viewers things they've never seen," says executive producer Tom Hanks. You definitely get a sense of Hanks' enthusiasm for the subject - he's a BIG fan of the space program (I can relate).

This section also allows you to view a much more brief Special Effects Featurette, which gives viewers a look at the making of the 600 plus effects shots in From the Earth to the Moon.

Launch Pad lets you view the twelve Trailers done for the series. Some relate to particular episodes, others are just generic promos for the series, but all are worth looking at. My favorite is the first... Destination Moon (I'm having a hard time getting that song, and the series theme, out of my head).

Choosing DVD Credits from the main menu gives you exactly what you'd expect - a few pages listing the various facilities who collaborated on the DVD series, including EMA Multimedia.

By far the biggest section, however, is the Command Center. Here, you'll find a Virtual Tour of the Solar System (so accurately researched, that even the rotational speeds shown are correctly), 3D Models of the Spacecraft (including the LEM, Command Module and the Saturn V, which can be viewed close up, rotated and even examined as wire frames), Mission Objectives (including NASA's charter mission statement, and objectives for each Apollo flight), Kennedy's Speech (the most significant text portions of the speech that started it all), a Timeline of the Conquest (showing the history of the space race, with mission by mission highlights, including both Russian and American programs), and a History of the Moon (detailing the history of man's fascination with the moon, moon lore, and more).

Finally, Command Center allows you to enter The ROM Side of the Moon - a special section of features accessible via DVD-ROM drives only. Rather than requiring the installation of custom software, the ROM features of this DVD have been created in HTML, for use with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. This allows access to content by both PCs and Macs - a friendly feature indeed. It's also been designed to work well on the widest array of computer systems.

Here's a hint - the only Easter Egg to be hidden on From the Earth to the Moon, can be found by clicking on the countdown numbers, just after you launch The ROM Side of the Moon - a tribute to a fallen hero.

Among the features found on the ROM Side, are the full text of Kennedy's Speech (including a brief audio clip), pages of information on the Future of Space Travel (including future projects and missions), information on Famous Astronomers, Web Links to sites with space information (NASA, etc...), Out of this Solar System (with information on black holes, pulsars and other far-flung phenomena), Panoramic QuickTime VR (of the Command Module and LEM cockpits, the lunar rover, the LEM exterior and the moon's surface), and a link to HBO's Docking Station, an on-line web site that supplements the content on the ROM, and which will be continuously updated with new information on the space program.

"...kiss the world good-bye, and away we'll fly... Destination Moon!"

Bottom line

Are you starting to get the idea that there's a LOT of content here? From the Earth to the Moon is just about as impressive a DVD collector's set as one could hope for. The series itself is first-rate, highly entertaining, and is presented here in superb video and audio quality. The overall presentation is a blast - there's lots of eye candy to really get you in the mood. And the extras are nothing short of ground-breaking. There's enough additional material on the last disc to wrestle with for hours, both on your regular DVD player, and your DVD-ROM drive (if you have one). Best of all, the links to HBO's Docking Station, with it's additional on-line content, allow more extras to be continually added, increasing the program's value. For DVD fans and NASA buffs alike, this set is simply not to be missed.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com

For more on From the Earth to the Moon, visit the following links:

HBO: From the Earth to the Moon - the official web site
HBO's DVD web site

And be sure to read my exclusive, in-depth look at the making of From the Earth to the Moon, featuring actual menu screen graphics and more, done behind-the-scenes at EMA Multimedia.




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