'Apollo 13" is well over two hours long, and when I realized there weren't going to be any surprises, I passed the time by recalling earlier movies with outer-space themes - pictures that do have surprises, marking milestones in the development of rocket-powered cinema.
One such moment is in "2001: A Space Odyssey," when the movie cuts from a bone wielded by a primitive humanoid to a spacecraft designed by 21st-century scientists, indicating that both are tools inspired by the same basic impulse toward mastery and progress.
Another is in "Star Wars," when Han Solo jump-starts the balky Millenium Falcon by whopping the control panel with his hand, suggesting that space-age technology isn't so mysterious or intimidating after all.
Yet another is in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," when Elliott's bicycle suddenly soars into the sky, demonstrating that science-fiction subject matter and fairy-tale plot twists can go hand in hand when feel-good entertainment is the filmmaker's only goal.
Alas, there are no such surprises in "Apollo 13," one of this season's most conspicuous bids for a high-tech superhit. To be fair, the movie is reigned in by its fact-based narrative, which prevents director Ron Howard and his collaborators from letting their imaginations soar as they might have in a purely fictional setting. For the same reason, the picture will disappoint people looking for megadoses of suspense, since the outcome of the story - everyone back on Earth, safe and sound - is a given from the start.
What compensates for this predictable plot is the professionalism with which it's told, turning a minor piece of 1970s history into an engaging yarn with equal quantities of special-effects wizardry and human feeling.
The events of "Apollo 13" come from the eponymous NASA mission launched in 1970, intended to land another team of Americans on the moon about eight months after Neil Armstrong and company inaugurated the era of lunar exploration.
Preparation for the flight was marred by significant glitches, including the last-minute replacement of a crew member for health reasons. But nothing prepared the astronauts for the calamity that hit right after liftoff: A string of minor accidents caused an oxygen tank to explode, disabling the command module and putting the three crew members in deadly danger. Reluctantly giving up hope of a moon landing, they turned their attention to getting back home in one piece, supported by the talented yet increasingly anxious experts at Mission Control in Houston.
Dramatic as they sound when outlined in a few phrases, these events don't automatically add up to sure-fire screen material, largely because American interest in space travel has dropped off drastically since pre-Apollo days. This had already begun when Apollo 13 started its journey, as the movie itself shows. Not much press showed up at Cape Kennedy for the launch, and the crew's in-flight telecasts were ignored by TV networks.
Today, many still regard space voyages as dull, mechanical procedures - an accurate perception, if one believes an expert like Tom Wolfe, who shows in "The Right Stuff" how the astronauts' own training was designed to turn their flights into routines as predictable as the drills they practiced in their simulators. No wonder modern science-fictioneers like Steven Spielberg take care to spice up their space-oriented stories with the fantastical trappings of an "E.T." or the mystical overtones of a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," using nonscience ingredients to prevent technology-based tales from seeming as dry as moon dust.
Howard's solution to this problem is a major dose of human-interest drama revolving around the personal lives of the astronauts. The first part of the picture is strictly earthbound, as module commander Jim Lovell reassures his nervous wife, rookie astronaut Jack Swigert hops into the mission with little warm-up time, and grounded pilot Ken Mattingly copes with disappointment at being dropped from the expedition. Minor characters like Lovell's apprehensive kids take on more importance as the story unfolds, and even his cranky old mother makes a few appearances for comic relief.
While none of this is very original, it works reasonably well thanks to a smartly chosen cast. Tom Hanks makes a welcome change in his recent image, trading Gumpian goofiness for Lovell's controlled intelligence. Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton make strong contributions as Swigert and crewmate Fred Haise, respectively, and Gary Sinise is solid if not inspired as the astronaut they had to leave behind. Ed Harris lends a hint of his patented weirdness as the Mission Control chief, and Kathleen Quinlan is richly believable as Lovell's spouse. Their efforts help "Apollo 13" function as efficiently as the mission itself was supposed to - by the numbers, but with enough guts and gumption to make the ride worthwhile.
After seeing the picture, I polled a few friends who were young adults (like me) when the real-life ordeal took place, and found that they (like me) barely remember the incident and paid little attention at the time - contrary to the movie's insistence that all America was huddled over TV sets and radios from the moment the mishap became known. I now join my once-apathetic friends, all of whom like the movie fairly well, in thanking Howard for letting me relive a historical moment that I didn't bother to live when it happened. "Apollo 13" is no trendsetter like "2001" or "E.T.," but it's a good enough adventure while it lasts.
* "Apollo 13" has a PG rating. It contains some intense action scenes and discussion of biological functions in space.