I’ve been a huge space nerd for basically as long as I can remember. I built models of the Space Shuttle, and LEGO space ships back when there weren’t themed LEGO sets. I once wrote a biography of Michael Collins, and I have both a favorite mission and a favorite astronaut. My parents took me to see Apollo 13 in theaters and I read the novelization as a child, and while I kind of (read: really) hate Tom Hanks, I kind of (read: kind of) loved the movie. So I thought, upon re-watching it this year, I should put my thoughts down here. Like usual, we’ll go through my general reactions as well as both what the movie did right and what it did wrong. Now let’s light this candle.
The Story of Apollo 13
One of the most famous space missions in history (trailing, I imagine, Apollo 11 and STS-51-L), Apollo 13 was a perfect demonstration of the skill and ingenuity of NASA’s astronauts and the US space program in general. It also, of course, highlighted some considerable design flaws in the Apollo space craft. After only two days in space, the Service Module’s (SM’s) oxygen tanks exploded and forced an abort of the lunar landing. Of course, the movie is more concerned with the aftermath of the explosion than anything else.
The crew (Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise) move into the Lunar Module (LM) and attempt to use it as a life boat. Since its systems are largely independent from those of the SM, its resources are relatively intact. The primary issue hinges on the fact that the LM was only designed to support two astronauts for two days, while they needed to find a way to stretch its resources to support three astronauts for four days. The most important of those resources: CO2 scrubbers.
The crew were extremely lucky, despite how things may seem at this point. Since Fred Haise had replaced Ken Mattingly due to the latter’s possible exposure to rubella (he never got it, thankfully), Mattingly was on the ground at the time of the accident. While this may not seem to be a huge boon to the crew in space, it turns out Mattingly was exactly the man they needed to improvise an adapter from the square-shaped Command Module (CM) canisters to the round LM canisters.
After a few hours spent in the LM simulator with only the materials available to the crew in space, he had his duct tape and sock solution. Now that they wouldn’t be poisoned by their own breath, the crew is (relatively) safe, if a little cold and dehydrated. They complete their slingshot around the moon, tear through Earth’s atmosphere and splash down safely in the South Pacific.
What They Did Right
I can’t offer much praise for the casting in this movie, with two glaring exceptions: Gary Sinise (Ken Mattingly) and Ed Harris (Gene Kranz). Frankly, I feel like 90% of this movie should have been Gary Sinise in the simulator building the adapter and Ed Harris strutting around Mission Control.
The drama in space was real, but the drama on screen is a little forced. I mentioned my mostly-real hatred of Tom Hanks above, and part of it is because of this movie. Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton are mostly passable (Paxtable?), but overall this movie could have benefitted from a slightly less star-studded cast.
I’m a big fan of the production design for this film. The costuming, sets and effects are all on-point. Mission Control looks like Mission Control, and that simulator module that Gary Sinise spends so much time in would make an excellent addition to any home. It could hardly look better.
Shout-out to whoever decided to spend 20 seconds of film time on the super-iconic white vest worn by Gene Kranz. It was totally worth it.
What They Did Wrong
Honestly? Not much. Really just re-read the Casting section from above. It’s just so Hanksy.
If you’re a fan of space exploration and somehow haven’t seen this movie, do it. There are better realistic space movies out there, but this is a story that absolutely deserves to be told. These guys were real heroes, and they pulled off one of the most impressive feats of engineering under some pretty extreme pressure.