Apollo 13 of Tom Hanks: The Imax Experience – As an experiment for both a studio and the IMAX folks

The most all-American, straight-arrow movie about space heroics and science would seem to be a natural for the wholesome educational programming of Imax, and “Apollo 13: The Imax Experience” fits the bigger-than-big screen quite nicely, with only a few small changes.

At a time when screens and theaters grow smaller and movie palaces are a thing of the past, the new practice of re-releasing films in the IMAX format is a thrilling step in the opposite direction. Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” which opens today at the IMAX theater at Navy Pier, looks bold and crisp on the big screen, and the sound has never sounded better–perhaps couldn’t have ever sounded better, because IMAX uses some 70 speakers.

Although it takes place largely in outer space, “Apollo 13” isn’t the kind of adventure saga that needs the bigger screen so its effects play better. “Star Wars,” which is headed for IMAX theaters, fits that definition. “Apollo 13” is a thrilling drama that plays mostly within enclosed spaces: The space capsule, mission control and the homes of those waiting in suspense on Earth.

The film re-creates the saga of the Apollo 13 mission, which was aborted after an onboard explosion crippled the craft on its way to the moon. In a desperate exercise of improvisation, crew members and the ground support staff figure out how to return the craft safely to Earth, cannibalize life-support from both the mother capsule and the lunar landing module, and navigate into a terrifyingly narrow angle between too steep (the craft would burn up in the atmosphere) and too shallow (it would skip off and fly forever into space).

Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon play astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, respectively. On Earth, the key roles are by Gary Sinise, as the left-behind astronaut Ken Mattingly, who uses a flight simulator to help improvise a solution; Ed Harris, who is cool-headed flight director Gene Kranz, and Kathleen Quinlan, as Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, who tries to explain to their children that “something broke on Daddy’s spaceship.” The movie has been trimmed by about 20 minutes for the IMAX release. Filmed in widescreen, it has been cropped from the sides to fit the IMAX format. Neither change bothered me. Although I am an opponent of pan-and-scan in general, I understand when it is used to maximize a different projection format. The detail and impact of the IMAX screen essentially creates a new way of looking at the film.

The most all-American, straight-arrow movie about space heroics and science would seem to be a natural for the wholesome educational programming of Imax, and “Apollo 13: The Imax Experience” fits the bigger-than-big screen quite nicely, with only a few small changes. The original’s 2.35:1 widescreen image has been reframed for the large-screen format of 4:3 (with an additional bit of masking frame at the screen’s top), and previous 139-minute running time has been trimmed of 20 minutes of action and three minutes of credit roll. Trims are mostly within scenes and amount to many slight cuts, quickening the original’s pace and losing a bit of dramatic and character color. The novelty of seeing the longest-yet Imax movie — an actual feature for the first time — is likely to gain the Ron Howard-Brian Grazer blockbuster some new, younger fans for a smooth flight through the Imax cinema circuit.

Kevin Bacon, Tom Hanks, and Bill Paxton talking in ship in a scene from the film ‘Apollo 13’, 1995. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

“Apollo 13” is the first of several features planned for Imax-ification, and this conservative, ultra-mainstream pic is probably the right choice for a test run. Trend is possible because Imax projectors can now unspool triple the length of the 40-minute reels that were once the format’s maximum capacity, and because of the new Imax DMR process, which digitally remasters the original 35mm film for Imax’s 70mm, 15 perforation medium. This doesn’t produce an ultra-sharp “digitized” image, but rather a blown-up celluloid picture without excessive grain.

What is by far the most striking element of the new version of “Apollo 13” isn’t visual, but aural. Because of the 70mm strip, which permits a much wider soundtrack, and because of the standard Imax theater’s sheer size, which can contain a vast speaker system, the resulting sound is extraordinary. While the blast-off sequence demonstrates the top end of the loud range, many other moments are greatly enhanced, from the groaning of the crippled Apollo vessel to the sound of Jefferson Airplane vividly wafting from the Houston bedroom of ship captain Jim Lovell’s teen daughter. James Horner’s already religious music is now enormous, but still banal, in the Imax cathedral.

Since director Howard has never been especially imaginative with the widescreen image, there’s no real harm to the film with the loss of (generally) the right and left sides of shots. Actor close-ups are now truly pronounced, casting an even greater spotlight on a beautifully nuanced perf by Tom Hanks, who injects his Lovell with subtle but unmistakable shots of mortality and regret. Trims tend to avoid much of the drama’s procedural character, and instead slice away at private moments (Kevin Bacon’s Jack Swigert in a shower with his lover, Kathleen Quinlan’s Marilyn Lovell trying to corral her kids to watch dad in space on TV).

Bill Paxton as Fred Haise
Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert
Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly
Ed Harris as Gene Kranz
Kathleen Quinlin as Marilyn Lovell
Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell

Directed by
Ron Howard
Written by
William Broyles Jr
Al Reinert
Based on the book by
Jim Lovell
Jeffrey Kluger

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