Apollo 13

Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience is a new experience for movie critics because it shifts the focus from content to medium. In recent years, IMAX has redefined the theatre goer’s experience with its eight feet high and hundred feet wide screens, six channel, multi-speaker sound system and a domed theatre that makes the audience feel as if they are a part of the movie. Another less obvious, but immensely satisfying, feature of IMAX is the clarity of the images. The 15/70 IMAX image is ten times the regular 35 mm frame and three times the 70 mm frame. The result of advanced technology is that the image and focus are a major improvement over ordinary image clarity.

Why did IMAX decide to show a previously released 35 mm picture like Apollo 13? For one thing, Apollo 13, being a space movie, has some visually spectacular scenes; some of the more panoramic scenes are ideally suited for IMAX screens. In addition, the themes in Apollo 13 of scientific innovation, historical significance and courage are ideally suited to museums and science centers, where many IMAX screens are located as well.

Apollo 13 is the historical story about the crew of a doomed space mission. The astronauts are on their way to the moon, but an explosion in space causes the shuttle to lose oxygen and power. The three crew members, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) were in all kinds of trouble; they could suffocate if the oxygen ran out, or they would freeze to death if there was insufficient power, or they could be poisoned by carbon dioxide because of a faulty filtering system. If, by some miracle, they escaped these calamities, there was always a chance that they would be toasted (literally incinerated) upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Miracles do happen, and the Apollo 13 crew returned safely to Earth, mainly due to the resilience of the crew and the calm authority of space controllers on Earth. Ed Harris, who portrays one of the controllers, earned an Academy Award nomination for his role.

The story is so well knit together that at times it seems as if Apollo 13 has its space technology and human participants in a symphony of their own. The viewers get a bird’s eye view of the Apollo 13 Launch Rocket, but these vertigo-inducing shots are interspersed with crawling cosmonauts in a cramped simulator. The Kennedy Space Station is a vast landscape of interlocking steel structures and open grass but the most telling moment is when Lovell’s wife comes to say goodbye and Lovell in his pleasure can do no better than a goofy smile. Awe-inspiring steel giants are always complimented with tiny human technocrats in what becomes a constant reminder of the symbiotic nature between humans and machinery. The symbiosis receives a jolt for sure, but human creativity triumphs and equilibrium is restored. Apollo 13 is not so much about how technology can be destructive as about how human innovation and courage can restore and control technology’s influence.

Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience retains the majesty and emotion of the original movie while amplifying manifold its visual and aural impact. The result is an irresistible combination of a rousing good story set on a truly grand scale. It is too soon to say if IMAX can carry any given movie on its booming shoulders. The medium still requires a story with a heart for it to be successful. As Ron Howard, the director of Apollo 13 puts it,“I think one of the surprises for people…who have already seen the movie in its original theatrical release, on television or on video or DVD, is that the heart of the film is human interest. Yes, there’s spectacle, but what the IMAX DMR version does is draw you even more deeply into a kind of shared experience that you’re having with these characters.” Therein lies the future of 35mm movies morphing into IMAX version. IMAX has to draw the audience into a shared experience; mere spectacle will not suffice.

– Nigam Nuggehalli