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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Apollo 13: 2-Disc Anniversary Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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Apollo 13
2-Disc Anniversary Edition - 1995 (2005) - Imagine/Universal (Universal)

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/B

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A-/A

On April 11, 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert rocketed from the Earth on what would have been Mankind's third mission to the Moon. It's hard to believe now, some thirty-five years later, that walking on the Moon was, by then, considered so routine that most of the world had lost interest. That quickly changed fifty-five hours into the mission however, when an explosion onboard the spacecraft ended the astronaut's dreams of going to the Moon, and nearly their lives as well. For four tense days, thousands of NASA technicians struggled heroically to overcome virtually insurmountable odds, and the entire world collectively held its breath in the desperate hope that these three brave men would return safely home.

Based loosely on the book Lost Moon, written by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 13 is an extraordinarily gripping and accurate depiction of the doomed flight, which although a failure by mission standards, is rightly considered by many to be NASA's finest hour. Directed masterfully by Ron Howard, Apollo 13 rings honest and true from beginning to end. The script is well written by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert (Reinert also produced and directed For All Mankind, perhaps the best documentary you'll ever see on the Apollo missions). What amazes me most about this film, is the extraordinary attention paid to detail, and the way it keeps you on the edge of your seat, despite the fact that you know how it's going to end. The zero-gravity is not an effect - the filmmakers actually put the set in a NASA jet, capable simulating weightlessness by diving headlong at the ground for 30 seconds at a time. The launch sequence is simply breathtaking, and gives me a chill every time. Perhaps the greatest testament to the film, is the fact that many of the actual participants in this real-life drama, after seeing Apollo 13, felt as though they had relived the event.

Hanks (who is himself a huge fan of the space program) gives a poignant and perfectly understated performance, as mission commander Jim Lovell, a veteran astronaut on his last and greatest mission. Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan all deliver some of the best performances of their careers. And Ed Harris is absolutely terrific as Gene Kranz, the stalwart Flight Director back in Mission Control, for whom "failure is not an option". There are even some great cameos to look for: B-movie mogul Roger Corman, Howard's mother, father and brother Clint (as the EECOM), Herb Jefferson, Jr. (Boomer from the original Battlestar Galactica TV series) and both Jim and Marilyn Lovell.

This new anniversary DVD release offers two versions of the film - the original theatrical cut on Disc One (presented in anamorphic widescreen in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio), and the more recent IMAX Experience version on Disc Two (also anamorphic but presented at 1.66:1). The main difference between the two, aside from the re-framing, is that the IMAX version has been cut by about 24 minutes (trims necessary due to the limitations of the reel size for IMAX format films). The cuts include mostly character scenes and parts of scenes - gone are Marilyn Lovell losing her wedding ring down the shower drain, Jim Lovell and Gunter Wendt's infamous "So... ve valk on zee Moon" exchange, Fred Haise getting space sick right after takeoff, etc. It doesn't really hurt the narrative, but it does sort of cheapen and condense the narrative too much for my taste. As you can guess, I would never watch the IMAX version given a choice. That results in a bit of a dilemma with this new DVD release. More in a moment.

The video quality on both versions is absolutely superb. The theatrical version has been given a brand new HD transfer that really improves upon the original DVD release dramatically. Colors are accurate and more subtle, there's significantly more detail visible in the image, contrast and shadow detailing is slightly improved. Gone is that annoying water mark as the crew walks across the gantry before launch. Apollo 13 was one of Universal's first real "collector's editions" back in 1998, and I was plenty happy with it back then. This new DVD just really surprised and pleased me. Surprisingly (or maybe not so much), the IMAX version looks even better, given the work that was done to enhance the image quality for the much larger screen. There's even greater clarity - MORE detail visible - and grain surprisingly isn't distracting. This makes me very excited for an HD version.

The audio is where that dilemma I mentioned a moment ago comes into play. The theatrical version includes the original DVD's excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, complete with its expansive and enveloping soundfield, smooth panning and thunderous LFE. Unfortunately, as many of you know, this version of the film was released on DVD in a separate (and even better sounding) DTS 5.1 version as well. That DTS track isn't included on the theatrical edition. Oddly, where you DO get the DTS option is on the IMAX version on Disc Two (along with Dolby Digital 5.1 as well), which no self-respecting fan of this film is going to want to watch. I would frankly rather Universal had simply ditched the IMAX version, pushed all the documentaries onto Disc Two and added the DTS on Disc One. It's a truly annoying decision, and is really the only strike against this new DVD edition (although, for the record, I also wish Universal had preserved the original DVD's chapter stops - selecting chapter 4 "The Lift-Off" takes you literally right to the rocket seconds from blasting off the padd, completely skipping all the great sequences building-up to launch). Oh well... on to the extras.

Disc One includes both of the original DVD's fascinating audio commentary tracks - one by director Howard and the other with real Jim and Marilyn Lovell. Disc One also offers the original DVD's theatrical trailer, production notes and first-rate documentary on the making of the film, Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13. The doc runs about an hour, and is almost as much fun to watch as the film. It's filled with behind-the-scenes stories, archival footage of the actual event, and interviews with the cast and crew, as well as the real astronauts and technicians depicted in the film. Want to see something really amazing? Late in Lost Moon, there's an interview with the actual Gene Kranz... and darned if he still doesn't choke up at the memory of those four desperate days, all these years later.

Disc Two adds a bit of new material in the form of two new documentaries. Or rather, a new documentary and a featurette. Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond starts off a bit dry and generic, but it develops into a surprisingly comprehensive look at not just the early Space Race, but more recent space history too, covering everything from the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the recent Columbia tragedy. It runs about 48 minutes. Lucky 13: The Astronauts' Story runs only 12 minutes and looks more specifically at the real men and Apollo 13 mission, featuring new interviews with Lovell and his wife, Fred Haise, Gene Kranz and a couple of the other mission controllers involved. There's also CG animation showing exactly what happened during the flight. The piece was original created for Dateline NBC, and it's very well produced - a good quick primer on the actual events.

But for the questionable DTS decision, upgrading to Universal's new Apollo 13: 2-Disc Anniversary Edition would really be a no-brainer. That said, the new release does successfully take the wonderful original DVD release and make it even better, preserving all of the original extras while adding significantly improved video quality... and that IMAX version if you care. It's fairly well priced too, so as a huge fan of this film, I personally wouldn't hesitate to upgrade. Just remember, you have to keep that original DTS disc. I took mine, tossed the keepcase, slipped it into a little paper sleeve and tucked it into the new packaging. Not the ideal upgrade, but what are you gonna do? In any case, Apollo 13 is a wonderful film about the best things we do as Humans (and Americans) - push back the frontiers, explore the wonders of the Universe and pull together in times of crisis to overcome adversity. It's gripping, entertaining... and a great film to watch with the whole family. Highly recommended.

Apollo 13: The Real Story - The Complete TV and Onboard Film

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Apollo 13: The Real Story
The Complete TV and Onboard Film - 1970 (2004) - Spacecraft Films

Program Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/A

If you love Universal's Apollo 13, and you're as serious a space enthusiast as I am, here's the perfect DVD to complement your viewing experience. Mark Gray and his crew at Spacecraft Films have crafted an outstanding 3-disc set detailing the REAL story of Apollo 13 (just one of a fantastic series of DVDs they're producing dedicated to NASA's historic space missions). Apollo 13: The Real Story features all of the original footage from the flight shot by the astronauts themselves. Plus you get hours of official NASA footage of the preparations for the flight, the post-flight press conferences, all the TV transmissions made during the flight - everything.

The video and audio quality isn't perfect - after all, this is 35-year-old television and 16mm archival footage - but it's been beautifully restored, preserved digitally and collected here in its entirety for the very first time.

Disc One starts with the best documentary you will ever see on this mission, appropriately titled Apollo 13: The Real Story. It runs about 45 minutes and covers the mission from start to finish, brimming with technical and historic detail and footage you've never seen before. Next up on Disc One is footage of astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise's lunar geology training (with audio commentary by Lovell), footage of their EVA and simulator training and a look at the Lunar Module testing before launch. You get to see the stacking of the Saturn V rocket, its rollout to the launch pad, the crew's breakfast on the morning of launch, the crew donning their suits and their drive out to the pad. Best of all is multi-angle footage of the launch itself, enhanced with multiple audio tracks (the announcer, the astronauts, the flight controllers and even a newly-recorded commentary by one of the propulsion engineers). You also get the first of the television transmissions from the flight here (some of it multi-angle as well).

Disc Two adds more television transmissions leading up to the accident itself, along with footage from mission control taken just before and just after the accident. The mission control footage features audio commentary with the mission's EECOM, Sy Liebergot. Also included on this disc are a number of press conferences that NASA officials and flight controllers held for the press to explain what had happened and what was being done to save the astronauts. There's more film footage taken aboard the flight and even a timeline of mission events too.

Disc Three rounds out the set with film taken right before and right after reentry, the recovery operations at sea, the crew arriving on the aircraft carrier flight deck, the various post-flight press conferences, the medal ceremony, footage of public reaction to the flight events from around the world, the review board findings of what had gone wrong... you name it. There's also complete coverage of a retrospective panel discussion (held at the Johnson Space Center in 1995) with Gene Kranz and several of the flight controllers talking about their efforts and experiences. Finally, you get the original documentary produced by NASA on this flight, Houston, We've Had a Problem. All in all, the material on these three discs exceeds a whopping 12 hours. Talk about comprehensive.

Once you've enjoyed the Ron Howard film, it's absolutely fascinating to be able to bite into the real meat of the actual events. Apollo 13: The Real Story gives you every last bite that's available - virtually every single bit of footage NASA shot to document the mission and then some. Whether you're a space junkie, a school teacher or just someone who wants to see what it was really like to experience this mission back in 1970, you'll never do better than this 3-disc set. It's an impressive and historically important piece of work.

Bill Hunt
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