Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Why "Apollo 13" Remains One of the Best Space Films 20 Years Later

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 known as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. It was a historic moment in American history and one that has come to epitomize the dreamers in all of us. It is likely why outer space has always been an intriguing place for fiction to visit, whether it be Star Trek or more recently with last year's Interstellar. Yet despite the real world success, outer space remains a largely fictional place on screen where even the best films like Gravity are nitpicked by scientists like Neil Degrasse Tyson for its numerous inaccuracies. It is with this general dissent that makes it harder to argue against director Ron Howard's Apollo 13, which turns 20 today and still features one of the most accurate depictions of space and remains one of the few true stories to tackle a realm beyond our atmosphere. For that reason, and so much more, it deserves far more recognition than it gets.

There was a line in Best Picture winner Forrest Gump that suggested if Tom Hanks' character became a shrimp boat captain, that Gary Sinise's character would be an astronaut. Considering that Apollo 13 came out less than a year later, the statement felt like free publicity with Hanks playing Jim Lovell and Sinise as Ken Mattingly, the latter of whom worked the control panel. The events follow the Apollo 13 mission in which things begin to go wrong and lead to the famous line "Houston, we have a problem." To an extent, it plays like a real life version of Alien: claustrophobic and scary as three men float above the planet, wondering if they'll ever be safe again. As real events will prove, the story is about their amazing journey to space and back. They may not have as much honor as Apollo 11's mission, but their story is quite extraordinary considering the circumstances.

More than the dedication to factual information is probably the "special effects." One of the general complaints when it comes to zero gravity depiction is the hair. Where most everything else seems weightless, long strands of hair are often left stuck to the actor's head. This may not be a distracting problem, but watching Sandra Bullock in Gravity when she undoes her helmet does have a jarring effect. What was Howard's way around just strapping actors in harnesses and green screens? With negotiations from Steven Spielberg, Howard got permission to use KC-135 planes that would be flown in such a way to create a realistic zero gravity look for 23 seconds. This is largely the case because NASA also uses KC-135 planes to train potential astronauts.

With Hanks in his prime, coming off of the unprecedented back-to-back Best Actor Oscar wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, his latest film continued to solidify his status as a powerhouse. With the events depicted only 25 years old at the time, it was an interesting mixture of nostalgia and cutting edge direction. On top of the impressive zero gravity scenes, the film incorporated a soundtrack that mixed James Horner's Oscar-nominated score with classics from the era by artists such as Jefferson Airplane, Norman Greenbaum, and James Brown. It was a period piece that was also a high strung spectacle of American pride both during the 70's and in the mid-90's. From the exploits of training to the family's personal lives, it created a humanity that elevated the adventure into having more stakes. 

It was the perfect blend of entertainment, history and drama.While outer space remains just as fascinating for filmmakers today as it did then, there's something missing from most of them. Beyond the authenticity and effects, the other films feel like forced hero stories. It also hurts that for NASA's rich history, very few noteworthy films have been released to a mainstream audience dealing with their various adventures. It could be that Howard found a story that itself made for compelling action. However, few films capture the celestial awe of space largely because those stories aren't real. Films like Contact and Interstellar may explore more philosophical sides to the outer world, but what do they say about American culture? Yes, Contact succinctly found a perfect balance for the religion and science debate. But what about a reminder of the extraordinary things that have been done in history?

This may be why Apollo 13 remains the only nonfiction outer space film to be nominated for Best Picture. Most will easily trip up and accidentally call this sci-fi. It isn't. From a technical standpoint to its writing, it is a film so extraordinary that it is a shame that it got overlooked at the Oscars. It won two (Best Sound and Best Film Editing), but lost Best Picture (Ron Howard didn't even get a Best Director nomination) to director Mel Gibson's Braveheart. While both oddly shared Horner as a composer, both couldn't be more opposite. For all of the accuracy that Apollo 13 was revered for, Braveheart was considered very inaccurate and maybe offensive from a violent and homophobic standpoint. If you want my personal opinion: Apollo 13 should have won. It wasn't just the better film. It was the more important one.

In a sense, Apollo 13 may not get its due respect even by the legacy it spawned. While NASA has chugged along, it hasn't remained as publicly adorned as it once did. In fact, the amount of outer space entertainment based on history is paltry, with maybe period piece shows like Mad Men and Astronaut Wives Club being the closest we get to recognizing the impact that space had on us in the early part of the late 20th century. While space still seems cool, there's no understanding displayed on film of why we should care as much as we once did. I don't chalk film up to being the only detractor, but considering its influence everywhere else, it seems egregious that the only major one to tackle space from a historical standpoint has largely been reserved to Oscar trivia buffs and those recognizing Tom Hanks' best work. Considering that historical films have impacted our views on war and social issues, it does seem like this genre is overdue for another entry. It may not change our public views on NASA entirely, but at least we'll care a little more than imagining that the world is full of talking trees and raccoon.

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