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Apollo head steadily, if slowly, to the moon

Apollo 13

Directed by Ron Howard.

Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert.

Based on the book Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger.

Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris.

Sony Cheri.

By Scott Deskin

This is the decade of Tom Hanks. If you don't believe it, look around: Each of his films seems to spawn killer box-office receipts and platinum soundtrack albums, and his back-to-back, Oscar-winning performances in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump have captivated audiences and critics alike. Hanks' "nice guy" image is hardly new, but he's come a long way from cheap sex comedies like Bachelor Party and the failed neurotic slapstick of The Money Pit.

In Apollo 13, Hanks seeks another career milestone. The film offers astronaut Jim Lovell's account of the nearly disastrous mission to the moon in the spring of 1970. After a perfunctory introduction to Lovell's family at the beginning of the picture, the focus shifts to the preparation for the mission (which, incidentally, took off not long after Neil Armstrong's famous moon walk of Apollo 11). Lovell, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) are the three men who make it to the launchpad. References to the fatalities on the Apollo 8 launchpad and Lovell's wife (Kathleen Quinlan) having nightmares about the mission create an artificial sense of impending disaster.

The story jumps to Day 3 in space. After the astronauts televise to a nonexistent national audience (in real life, America is already so bored with space travel to the moon that television won't pick up NASA's signal), Hanks lets loose the again-famous "Houston, we have a problem." The problem is that one of the oxygen tanks ruptures and the remainder of the mission - not to mention the crew's chances of getting home - takes a turn for the worse. A variety of hardware problems confront the crew, aside from Haise's motion sickness and Swigert's lack of experience. It's up to Hanks - I mean, Lovell - to hold the crew together so they all get home safely.

The cast for Apollo 13 works well together, having met up on several fronts in the past: Director Ron Howard teamed up with Hanks in Splash; Hanks and Sinise were seen together in Forrest Gump. For his part, Paxton is no stranger to roles in action films; remembering his performance in Aliens, however, I kept expecting him to cry, "Game over, man! Game over!" The movie's problem is that the script is too formulaic and casts the performances too much to the caricatures that they are: dependable family man Lovell; slightly insecure family man Haise; and young, swinging bachelor Swigert. Hanks gives another solid performance in this film, but Ed Harris, as the main supervisor at Mission Control, has the best, most understated role.

The film evokes the late 60s/early 70s era nicely, although the steady stream of pop hits early in the film left a sour, overly "soundtrack marketable" taste in my mouth ( la Forrest Gump). The special effects are quite good, especially the computer-assisted design of the spacecraft. The wide-screen images that encompass the vessel on its path to the moon are no less impressive. Of course, it would be nice to see a mainstream film not show thrusters and engines making noise in the vacuum of space.

The main problem of the film is the pacing, which feels too calculated and methodical. Perhaps I'm spoiled by the notion that epic space films should connote images and feelings of grandeur. In that respect, The Right Stuff is a superior film, building a mythic significance around the original astronauts of the Mercury program (and featuring a younger Ed Harris as John Glenn). In the meantime, if you can't see that film on a big screen, Apollo 13 may offer some instant, if only partial, gratification.