I recently purchased Apollo 13 on Blu-ray; the 20th Anniversary edition- yes, another sobering reminder of the march of time; has it really been twenty years? This edition apparently sports a new remaster which improves on the image quality of earlier HD editions, but as my previous copy of Apollo 13 was its first R1 DVD edition from many, many moons ago (sorry, couldn’t resist) then this would no doubt certainly be a richer experience than before. I hadn’t seen the film in years, just catching isolated moments on its many tv airings so I looked forward to watching it.
Sadly the subsequent tragic death of James Horner last week made re-watching the film rather poignant, as his score is such a large part of the film’s success. It’s a wonderfully effective score, melodic and powerful, the kind of score deemed largely unfashionable these days.I gather that Horner’s career had stalled somewhat in recent years largely because of how tastes in film-scoring have changed. His Apollo 13 score is a reminder of his work at its height and of a time when film-scoring in general was treated differently by Hollywood. Half my pleasure in re-watching Apollo 13 stemmed simply from listening to Horner’s fine music again. Indeed, it has me thinking of digging out some of my other Horner-scored Blu-rays that I haven’t watched in awhile, like Field of Dreams, Glory and Legends of the Fall, over the next few weeks.
So how was Apollo 13, rewatching it again some twenty years after first being blown away by it at the cinema and then enjoying it over the years on DVD and catching bits of it on tv airings? Well its a rather sobering experience to be frank. Its still a good film, but I think my tastes have changed a little perhaps or I have become more disenchanted with contemporary blockbusters than I thought. I say this because I can now clearly see that Apollo 13 heralded so many of the bad things that annoy me most in modern blockbusters. I’m not suggesting that the film is bad, of course its not, but some things surprised me.The film lacks a sophistication that otherwise might have gained it the stature of greatness; it is clearly more a ‘product’ than ‘art’.
Apollo 13 is unabashedly manipulative. Of course, all films are manipulative to some degree or another, but Apollo 13 is unreservedly so and it can be rather distracting. Some of this is purely dialogue-driven, lines spoken to explain what is going on or to add dramatic tension- in this sense the film is rather prophetic, as films these days, particularly the summer blockbusters, are full of this nonsense (I can imagine ‘Blockbuster Film’ Schools showing Apollo 13 to budding screen-writers as a lesson in how to write the modern blockbuster movie, the lecturer ranting “the public are stupid! Show them! Tell them!” over and over). This dumbing-down of movies is something I get increasingly irritated by. Apollo 13 has a fantastic central story, it simply doesn’t need this hand-holding of the audience. Or maybe it does; to be fair, the film was hugely successful with a general public who weren’t even alive when NASA went to the moon so maybe the film-makers were right, but for me, as someone who has always been fascinated by the space program and read widely about it, this stuff is really irritating. Other than the sometimes-painful dialogue, there are scenes written expressly to raise the dramatic tension, such as with the astronauts arguing. Dramatic license I guess. But was it really necessary?
The 20th Anniversary is a lost opportunity then, as it would have been enlightening to have heard a new commentary track by director Ron Howard. It would have been fascinating, after so many years, to have Howard re-evaluate his work and perhaps comment on what he did right or what he did wrong. Perhaps he would never be so candid anyway, but still, it would have been interesting. Would he have cringed at the manipulative moments, the over-explanatory dialogue, the astronauts mild hysterics?
Some things hold up surprisingly well. Technically the film is very good indeed- the special effects largely stand the test of time even under the scrutiny of HD and as I have mentioned, the music score is simply wonderful. The cinematography however does look rather flat in places and uninspired; likely this is down to a pseudo-documentary approach and an attempt to mesh the then-cutting edge cgi with the live-action photography. This last point may be something we notice more as we re-watch films from the early days of cgi special effects. The cast is pretty much wonderful, and here the film really benefits from its age, seeing so many once-familiar faces doing their work. Its pretty close to a ‘who’s who’ of Hollywood at the time it was made and also an opportunity to see the likes of Bill Paxton in a starring role (a cast-reunion commentary would have likely been a blast, I expect, so thats another lost opportunity).
So rather mixed feelings about Apollo 13 then. I guess you have to be wary about re-watching your old fave movies.