Orange Thursday: Apollo 13 (1995)

Ron Howard's averaging of events

Apollo 13

It’s movie time again. However, thanks to a combination of:

  • Torrential downpours
  • Cancelled trains
  • The fact I’ll get mugged if I stand at a bus stop in Lewisham watching a movie on my iPad
  • The fact I get sick on buses if I try to watch a movie on my iPad

I only had time to watch one movie this week. I did make a start on another, though, so spoiler alert: one of next week’s movies will be Tokyo Story (1953).

This week, though, after the jump, all on its tod, is Apollo 13 (1995)

Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks in Apollo 13
Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks in Apollo 13

Apollo 13 (1995)

In this Hollywood drama based on the events of the Apollo 13 lunar mission, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) find everything going according to plan after leaving Earth’s orbit.

However, when an oxygen tank explodes, the scheduled moon landing is called off. Subsequent tensions within the crew and numerous technical problems threaten both the astronauts’ survival and their safe return to Earth.

Ed Harris in Apollo 13
Ed Harris in Apollo 13


I’m not sure at what point a movie becomes a classic. Does it have to be good? Is it just when it’s a certain age? Does it merely have to be fondly remembered? I guess a few awards might do it, even if none of them were for “Best Director” , “Best Screenplay” or “Best Picture”. Whatever the case, whenever you google Apollo 13, you get told its ‘classic’.

It’s really not. It’s perfectly adequate, just like every other Ron Howard movie you’ll ever watch. It’s got a good cast, too, and the effects are goodish for 1995. But if there’s anything about it that lifts it above the mundane, it’s the real-life story that it depicts.

Apollo 13

Poor contrast

So obviously, I went on a great mental journey after watching First Man last week and decided to watch Apollo 13 – as well as the pilot movie for The Six Million Dollar Man, which honestly is better than Apollo 13.

Anyway, watching Apollo 13 after watching First Man is a real eye-opener. Sure, direction and editing were limited by the technology of the time, but honestly, Apollo 13 is prosaic. It is the most ordinary retelling of the story you could probably do, short of having people read out a text from a history book.

The dialogue is dull and stilted. There’s no visual flair. The pacing is about pedestrian as you can get. There’s barely a hint of danger at any point, to the extent that screenwriter Brian Glazer puts in a dream sequence to try to inject the danger that isn’t elsewhere into the piece – and still fails to make it exciting.

The characters barely get any life breathed into them. Everything hinges on how important it all is and how everyone’s not going to get to the moon, boo hoo. But that’s the extent of the characterisation.

And then we get all the sterling stuff and applause and people hugging that you expect of a Hollywood movie that clearly wants to win an Oscar for being important and about important American things.

Even the genuine bravery and ingenuity of everyone involved is poorly reflected. It’s all just gritted teeth and all-American lines like, “I don’t get to rest until they get to rest.” The one line everyone knows? That’s what was said in real-life (more or less), not the invention of a screenwriter.

All of which makes Apollo 13 not a terrible movie, but certainly one that squanders its story to the law of averages. Don’t rewatch it, thinking you’re in for a classic – just watch it to familiarise yourself with events, see how young everyone looks and spot a whole bunch of actors before they were famous.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.