All Systems Go: `Apollo 13' Soars

----------------------------------------------------------------- Movie review

XXX 1/2 "Apollo 13," with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, Ed Harris. Directed by Ron Howard. Cinerama, Crossroads, Everett Mall, Factoria, Gateway, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Issaquah 9, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Lewis & Clark, Mountlake 9, Oak Tree, Puyallup, Valley drive-in. "PG" - Parental guidance advised because of language. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Although it's devoid of the greatness of Philip Kaufman's gritty and sardonic "The Right Stuff," Ron Howard's pop-entertainment you-are-there space thriller is easily the most rousing film of the year. And it might make real spaceflight just as nifty as "Star Wars" for youngsters.

With the dramatics of a moon shot and today's movie technology, it's amazing that no one has made this sort of movie before, notably the ill-fated Apollo 13 (there was a forgettable 1974 TV movie with Robert Culp). The moon-bound craft suffered a crippling explosion that jeopardized the lives of the astronauts and held the world in suspense for four days. Whether you remember the events and outcome of the mission or not, "Apollo 13" sustains suspense for all 2 hours and 20 minutes.

It's not just Hanks up there

Though most of the press surrounds the nearly sainted Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell, the movie is an ensemble piece. We are given equal time with the technicians at NASA helmed by Ed Harris and the home front with Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn Lovell.

Writers William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, both with journalistic backgrounds (Reinert made the stunning space documentary "For All Mankind"), have created a clean narrative that retains the techno-babble of authenticity while never losing its audience (John Sayles was an uncredited writer).

This would be for naught if Howard, cinematographer Dean Cundey and production designer Michael Corenblith could not re-create the realm of space travel. The film contains no stock mission footage, relying on models and effects to create dramatic stage separations and nervy thruster burns (the only hokey-looking sequence is a dreamed moonwalk).

Even better is seeing the actors float in the spacecraft. This was achieved by sending actors, crew and sets into a windowless NASA plane flying in a parabolic arc that allowed for brief 25-second bouts of weightlessness. It adds a tremendous sense of authenticity.

The movie captures the beauty of it all, from gleaming space suits to those all-American values of teamwork, tenacity and ingenuity (Robert Dole's gonna love this). It also works as an effortless lesson in heartbreak on a personal scale and brotherhood. A simple scene between Lovell and Fred Haise near the film's end is one of the year's most heartfelt.

Likable characters

Character development is on the low end, especially with the three leads in capsule. Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have rarely been so likable but both characters are one dimensional. Better defined are the ground crew. Ed Harris is at the point in his career where his mere presence adds a dignified stature. Gary Sinise is strong as a grounded astronaut who pores over technological data to help his comrades.

It's sad to see space travel as antiquated but that's part of the charm of the movie. Lovell boasts about a computer than can fit into a small room that has less power than today's laptops.

By the end, the movie is a call to explore the heavens more. "Apollo 13" convinces you that in hindsight going to the moon was not about racing the Russians or gathering moon rocks - it was humankind's greatest adventure.