There is not much mythological resonance in Apollo 13, Ron Howard’s space travel film. It is vastly inferior to The Right Stuff (1983), as even a cursory comparison reveals.
Apollo 13 starts promisingly enough. An astronaut, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), is at a party, explaining to a female companion the docking procedures of spacecraft. It’s a lascivious come-on routine; and in the corner, watching with brotherly or perhaps fatherly indulgence, is his older and more settled colleague, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). It’s only a small bit of business, but it promises a lot. Will Apollo 13 henceforth be an exploration of the psychosexual fantasies underlying space travel? For his part, Philip Kaufman was completely unafraid to include imagery that indicated the genuine ecstasy (on all levels) of space travel for astronauts – whether the phallic exuberance of booster rockets, or the milky calm of dots, lights and stars swimming around in the inky blackness. But Apollo 13 swiftly shies away from even a hint of this theme.
To be fair, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 pursue very different projects. The former is a cockeyed ode to success – even if it’s the vanishing success of a lost era, or the kind of triumph that Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) felt within his solitary self. Apollo 13 is more directly about failure. For, in real life, this was not exactly a heroic mission. By the time Apollo 13 went up, the grand adventure of space travel had lost its glamour. The mass media were no longer very interested. Astronauts had become yesterday’s heroes – and Howard’s film touchingly shows the effects of this global disenchantment on those rigorously training to be next in the air.
This wasn’t an auspicious starting point for the mission; from there, things just got steadily worse. Just about everything went wrong on this particular voyage. Shortly before the deadline, one astronaut fell sick and had to be replaced. Then, once in the sky, many key systems on the ship failed. There was to be no moonwalk for this crew, no stirring pictures beamed back to the television sets of Planet Earth.
Really, the only success in this tale is the fact that the team made it back alive. It’s just as Samuel Fuller always said of war (any war): the only glory is in survival. So it’s a qualified, rather downbeat success story. I kept thinking throughout that, if Australian directors had been making huge-budget space movies during the so-called renaissance of feature filmmaking in the 1970s, this is exactly the kind of melancholic saga they would have given us. For Apollo 13 is the Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981) or Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam, 1975) of space movies. Stoic triumph, the dignity of the loser behind the eight-ball of history … and all that.
However, I get the unmistakable feeling that Howard, being the big-budget entertainer that he is, doesn’t really want us to see the story in this way. He does his darnedest to turn it into just another feel-good tale of old-fashioned triumph. Except that, this time, it’s triumph against all odds, triumph snatched from a position in the utter back-blocks of disrepute, as in some American sports movies. But stretched over a cosmic canvas! Particularly at the climax, Howard tries to wring every bit of stirring sentiment from the spectacle of the experts down at the base, crossing their fingers and trying the guide the capsule down safely. In this case, however, the strenuous feel-good vibe is just not terribly convincing.
A mid 1990s edition of the ABC TV program Review asked: "Is Apollo 13 really Forrest Gump  in space?" Journalists like to talk that way, but I think the succinct answer would have to be: No – despite the presence of Tom Hanks as well as Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly, not to mention a few golden-oldie hits such as Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 “Spirit in the Sky”. Apollo 13 has a surface plot and essentially nothing else going on in it. What amateur sleuth-critics love to call “subtext” is definitely missing. It is strangely enslaved to the real, historical facts of the case, and this gives it a dull, plodding feel. Howard has allowed himself no poetic license whatsoever to explore the possibilities of the premise. The potential for it to be a fable about history, society, gender or anything else is scuttled.
The film appears crippled by its awareness that audiences already know the outcome of the story. So it trades suspension of disbelief – not to mention generic thrills – for a laboured air of portent and foreboding. Early on, Lovell’s wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) loses her wedding ring down the shower drain; this is only one of a dozen heavy-handed signs of the disaster to come. Where Kaufman’s astronaut brides kick and scream and implode and call their husbands assholes, the women here are more the dutiful type: fretting, nobly letting fall a single tear, keeping the home-fort together.
When Mattingly is taken off the Apollo mission just before take-off, I hallucinated a Melrose Place-type intrigue: maybe he would get together with the frustrated Marilyn while her husband is in space, and then when he returned, there’d be hell to pay ... But, of course, that’s not what happened in life, so it’s not what happens in the film. A pity! Not even inside the spacecraft, when systems are failing and the guys are getting terse and testy with each other, is there much drama to be experienced.
The worst and most disappointing thing about Apollo 13 is simply that it manages to be so completely uncinematic. How could this be the case? There are spectacular images of rockets launching and whatnot, but nothing approximating an exciting combination of sounds, images and dramatic situations. And what a come-down this is for a space genre that has included The Right Stuff and Stanley Kubrick’s immortal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)!
One of the big stylistic challenges to which Howard has not risen is the question of how you actually show the claustrophobia inside a space craft, and the panic once everything starts going wrong. Naturally, there are no monsters on board as in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), no comet showers as in the Star Trek franchise, no poor guys being sucked out into space as in 2001. What we have here is a bunch of fairly immobile chaps with thick helmets on, mumbling as the electricity fails or their oxygen supply dwindles. We are a long way here from Howard’s merry start-up days as a genuinely inventive American auteur in Cotton Candy (1978)! It would have taken a director with a more cartoonish imagination like Kaufman or Sam Raimi to dream up a way to cinematically depict such shut-in micro-events.
What we mostly see in Apollo 13, however, are long scenes of astronauts glancing nervously at each other, exchanging terse quips, and fiddling with their life-support switches. This problem of turning such gestures into exciting, cinematic events besets another mid ‘90s movie, the computer-age thriller The Net (Irvin Winkler, 1995). But in that film, at least, the spectacle of Sandra Bullock bashing the keyboard, speed-reading screens and inserting floppy discs was able to deliver the goods more pacily than the long haul back to Terra Firma dutifully provided by Howard.
© Adrian Martin September 1995