In the recent past the space genre was represented by films like Event Horizon, Sunshine, and the new Star Trek films. These movies provide solid entertainment value, but not much beyond that. Between 2000 and 2010 only two movies loosely related with space garnered Best Picture nominations from the Academy Awards, District 9 and Avatar. Both were unique films depicting allegorical themes and having great visual effects. However, the only semblance of space were the origins of the aliens and, in some form, both had spaceships. Not much space was actually shown. Thankfully, the space-film genre appears to be having a mini renaissance.
Within the past six years three space-films received Best Picture nominations – Gravity, The Martian, and Arrival. I don’t think this recognition is a coincidence. It parallels a recent surge in global space achievements: evidence of water on Mars, the first satellite imagery of Pluto, commercial space flight becoming reality, India’s massive satellite launch, NASA’s discovery of Trappist-1, and many more. I want to take this opportunity to reflect back on a movie that shows the efforts for these accomplishments. A movie that I’d say is a modern classic and a model for what space-films can be.
Apollo 13 helmed by Ron Howard, stars the likable Tom Hanks alongside Bill Paxton, Kathleen Quinlan, Ed Harris, and many other performers. The movie centers around the true events of NASA’s 1970 lunar mission, when an explosion occurs en route to the moon jeopardizing the safety of three astronauts. A story about the incredible effort it took to bring them home with everything, from before blast-off to afterwards, working against them. The movie has a lot working for it – great performances, a well-structured narrative, amazing production and effects. All of this coupled with the visuals and sounds created a film that has held up well after twenty-plus years.
With a cast of over 50 speaking roles it’s difficult to talk about all the performances, but from the major players to the minor ones, all helped to tell this extraordinary tale. Tom Hanks plays Jim Lovell, the commander of the Apollo spacecraft, whose personal mission is to walk on the moon. Hanks displays a wide breadth of emotions in varied scenes; he’s the father easing his child, the leader keeping his crew focused, the guy frustrated with Houston and much more. Ed Harris plays Gene Kranz, the flight director, the man in charge of the decisions on the ground in Houston. He portrays Kranz as a firm leader who doesn’t take any shortcuts. He’s the kind of boss who can make tough calls and be a great drinking buddy too. In the midst of all the problems occurring the crew disconnect their medical sensors causing the flight surgeon to panic. Kranz chuckles at their prank and, with a smile, reassures the surgeon. He truly earned his Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Kathleen Quinlan, also nominated, played Lovell’s wife, Marilyn. She’s the wife who worries for the right reasons, but has to be the rock for her family. When Jim Lovell is watching the moon pass by him and not landing on it, Quinlan breaks down as she knows the pain Jim is feeling. It’s a great performance hitting all the right beats. Smaller roles that deserve mention include Clint Howard and Brett Cullen who play EECOM White and CAPCOM 1 respectively – various members of the Houston crew. Their delivery of lines, like “when I go up there [the moon] on 19, I’m gonna take my entire collection of Johnny Cash along!”, create their own personality and not be stale background characters. They aren’t used as puppets just to serve the plot, but have their own moments that shape the story. A great ensemble was put together for a film appropriately about a great team effort.
The movie isn’t rocket science – it’s a tale about not accepting failure as an option. There are many moments of “doom” prophesied – Lovell’s car stalling, Mrs. Lovell’s wedding ring going down the drain, and the mission number, 13, being associated with bad luck. The main theme, problem-solving, is woven into the smallest of moments. A great example of this integration occurs when Houston is discussing ways to bring the astronauts home. An overhead projector breaks down and Kranz quickly resolves this issue by using a chalkboard instead and continuing onto the important matters. As the narrative progresses the crux of the story, the problems, occur and each is contained in their own mini story arc. The film portrays a fair amount of the leg work required for the solutions – watching people do math and seeing them fail at trial-error solution methods – that it’s reminiscent of the minutiae work portrayed in Spotlight. The solutions are ultimately funneled by mission control’s Capcom to a satisfying resolution. The pace of the various problems and solutions methods doesn’t drag nor is it hasty and easily dismissed; the film takes it’s time and allows for things to breath.
For a movie released over two decades ago it has aged very well and much of that is attributable to the art direction and outstanding visual effects. The sets are bursting with bright colors and old technologies like huge televisions, tucking the audience into the 1970s. Quinlan’s wardrobe puts a great timestamp on the period too. Miniature models based on NASA records were built to populate this world. NASA’s KC-135, flying in parabolic arcs, was used to create short moments of weightlessness. The film crew took advantage of this small window by building sets on the plane and filming in the zero-gravity environment. Practical effects are a large part of the reason older films can endure the test of time, Apollo 13 is no exception. The combination of the “look” crafted by the production design and use of practical effects made the suspension of reality and transition into movie magic easy.
The camera isn’t idle, but an active member in shaping the story. When Sinise’s character Ken Mattingly learns that he’s grounded from the mission, the camera shows him front and center as he expresses his sadness and frustration. It appears that he alone, but the camera slowly backs away revealing his other crew members are present. This movement supported Sinise’s performance and underlined his character’s disappointment. The camera can make even a simple action into something larger than life. During the computer power-up procedure relayed from Mattingly to Kevin Bacon’s Jack Swigert a pivotal moment is left to the push of a button. Before it’s pressed, the camera is dollied down onto the Houston crew. This movement created the visual equivalent of the idiom “on edge of your seat” by generating suspense. It’s almost space-like as the camera descends onto their faces as if a plane is coming in for a landing. These resolute choices about camera movements and position support the various tones each scene crafts.
Music and noise in film add a layer to the story-world even if part of the world is set in space – a place void of sound. During the sequence leading up to blast-off a divine-like orchestral piece is playing. This heavenly piece follows the crew into space until it’s overtaken by a new sound, a blaring alarm. The engine cut-off, triggering the alarm, created doubt about the mission’s viability. Jarring and worried feelings were crafted by the visuals, but were felt because of the sounds. When Lovell informs Houston it’s oxygen leaking the background music, producing a numbing sensation, slowly softens before complete silence engulfs the scene. Houston acknowledges the news and it sets everyone in an uproar with nothing discernible being heard. It takes Kranz’s voice to cut through the bedlam with the first audible words, – “listen up, quite down.” These sounds and many more, like the various rattles heard during the movie’s most suspense riddled moments (CO2 filter replacement and computer restart sequence), fill the movie’s atmosphere. Sound is heard or deliberately withheld setting the mood for the ups, downs, and in betweens of this journey.
Apollo 13, a movie focusing on a journey to the moon, but a story grounded in humanity. At it’s core the movie is about problem-solving; one challenge arises then another and another and each is tackled for a resolution. It depicts the people that overcame these challenges through performers that filled them with life and personality. The objects around these actors were time period appropriate and the visual effects were practical – which look great even today. The camera enhanced performances and accented the purpose of scenes. Finally, the movie’s sound did more than fill the ear by serving as a guide. Apollo 13 is one small step for a space-film, one giant leap for the space-genre.
I hope the trend of good quality space movie continues on. One day a space-film will earn a top prize for Best Picture. Until then Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant and James Cameron’s next three Avatar films will fill the time.