Suspenseful, and Satisfying
JLFM - wrote on 02/24/13
A downfall to creating a film based off of well known true events is that the conclusion is spoiled, therefore, leaving little in the conclusion that is unexpected. Therefore, these kinds of films tend to rely more on the journey to provide the emotional umph, then the actual conclusion. When the film is made to be suspenseful, this doesn't always work so well. Films like Valkyrie shows us how this can fail. Films like Apollo 13 shows us how it can work.
Three astronauts, named Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, find themselves in a dangerous predicament when after blasting off into space, begin having extreme rocket malfunctions. Problem after problem occurs, and things are seeming really, really bleak. With just about everything going wrong, it's a frantic survival tale, where the three men are desperately fighting for their lives.
Despite being based off of well known true events, Apollo 13 still provides a suspenseful ride. Though the first half-hour or so is a bit slow, the pace quickly picks up quite a bit, and the film rarely feels long after that. This is quite an accomplishment for a film that's nearly 2 and a half hours long.
Despite being a highly suspenseful and exciting film, Apollo 13 is not what one might consider a "joy ride." The emotional aspect of the film keeps us in pain and sadness for the families waiting to hear whether their husbands and fathers will return from space alive. And of course, worrying families aren't comforted by exaggerating media that are squeezing every last drop of suspense out of the already emotionally taxing situation. By playing a more stressful and tragic game with the family's involvement, Apollo 13 becomes a more intelligent and thoughtful film than it might've been otherwise.
The families aren't the only stressful aspect the film plays from. Back at Mission Control, the entire staff is frantically trying to find a way to guide the astronauts back home. Going with little sleep and lots of coffee, each small victory is a reason for celebration, though there are no rests until the men are safely back.
Solid acting further assists this. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, as Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise respectively are very good in their roles, as is Ed Harris as the Apollo 13 Flight Director, Gene Kranz. The standout here, however, is Jim's wife, Marilyn, played by Kathleen Quinlan. She portrays a distraught and pained wife in a performance that we truly believe. There's some deceptive depth in this role, and Quinlan nails it.
The visuals are quite nice. While not particularly breathtaking, the effects look good, and they look real. The zero gravity effects specifically are very good. It's certainly a breath of fresh air from the often excessive CGI effects in film today.
The score, by James Horner, is good, but it's an interesting approach to the film. While one might expect a film in space to have a much more grand score, James Horner composes a less loud and brassy score. While there are moments of triumph in the music, they come less often then one might have expected. Also, in moments of high tension (and there are several), Horner takes another interesting approach to the music. Rather than composing pieces at higher tempos, these pieces are usually played at a slower speed, letting the onscreen action carry most of the tension. Whether this is a plus or a minus is up to your own tastes.
Apollo 13 is a well made and well acted film. Told with suspense and precision, this is a fine example of true event films done right. Still, while there's not much here in the way of flaws (though some might argue that it's a bit repetitive), Apollo 13 also just misses being a truly great film. It's certainly an enjoyable one, and making a 2 hour film endurable is an achievement in itself, but I couldn't help but wonder while I was watching Apollo 13, why I wasn't loving it. The funny thing is now that I've seen the film, I still couldn't tell you.