From the Earth to the Moon

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

HBO;
Drama;
$39.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated;
Stars Tom Hanks, Lane Smith, Nick Searcy, Stephen Root, Mark Harmon, Tony Goldwyn, David Andrews, Tim Daly, Bryan Cranston, Dave Foley, Paul McCrane, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Cary Elwes, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Brett Cullen, Tom Verica, Tom Amandes, Adam Baldwin, Gary Cole, Dan Lauria, Dan Butler, Joe Spano, Rita Wilson, Elizabeth Perkins, David Clennon, John Slattery, Tchéky Karyo, Jay Mohr.

With shows and movies about America’s space program getting a minor boost from the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the timing was perfect for HBO to finally release 1998’s From the Earth to the Moon on Blu-ray.

The 12-part miniseries is a docudrama covering the inception and implementation of the goals of the Apollo Program to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth, all the way through Apollo 17, the final lunar landing mission.

Even more than 20 years later, From the Earth to the Moon remains one of what I would term the “big three” movie depictions of the space program, along with The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 (a group First Man could have added too had it not been so uninspiring and myopic in its scope).

In fact, the success of Apollo 13 is probably the main reason the miniseries even exists, as it was made under the same production house as the film, with director Ron Howard producing. Tom Hanks, who starred in Apollo 13, also serves as one of the producers of the miniseries, in addition to writing and directing a couple of the episodes. He also serves as a host, providing a brief introduction to each episode.

At the time it first aired, the landmark miniseries was so impactful that it went on to easily capture the Emmy and Golden Globe for Outstanding Miniseries, as well as lay the groundwork for Hanks in 2001 to spin the World War II miniseries Band of Brothers (and, in 2010, The Pacific) out of his time working with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan.

From the Earth to the Moon is unusual as far as a typical miniseries format goes. Instead of a long narrative broken into chapters, it plays more like 12 mini-movies about specific missions or moments in the space program, each distinct in its style and structure, but designed to fit together to tell the story of project Apollo as a whole. This is accentuated by the fact that, while there are a number of recurring characters throughout the episodes, and most are played by the same actor, there are a few examples where a part is played by someone else. A number of actors from Apollo 13 appear here as well, although in different roles than the film. There are also a few recurring elements to tie the various episodes together, such as Lane Smith playing a fictionalized newscaster in the vein of Walter Cronkite.

While the previous DVDs of From the Earth to the Moon don’t look terrible when upscaled to an HD monitor, a Blu-ray version was still highly anticipated by fans of the show and space enthusiasts alike. However, the product we ended up with has turned out to be something of a mixed bag, for a variety of factors.

Foremost among them was that the show was made in the mid- to late-1990s, on the cusp of the transition to high-definition. As such, the show and its extensive visual effects were originally mastered in standard-definition for the old 4:3 television aspect ratio. Thus, a true high-definition presentation of the miniseries would require a possibly expensive re-construction of the visual effects, which likely explains why the Blu-ray took so long to produce. Episodes weren’t even available through HBO’s on demand platforms until they were remastered.

The upgrade turned out to be somewhat controversial among fans of the show, with HBO opting to create new CGI visual effects in most of the sequences. The new shots are a step up in brightness and clarity, but inconsistent in terms of quality and accuracy compared with the real-life spacecraft. Rather than give the show a modern visual update, the CG team’s goal seems to have been more to re-create the feel of the model shots from two decades ago, which makes them feel a bit hokey in their movements at times.

From the Earth to the Moon was re-framed for 16:9 for its 2005 DVD re-release, and that decision has carried over to the Blu-ray as well. What that means, though, is that some of the top and bottom of the original image has been lost in the re-framing, which doesn’t affect too much of the presentation but does stunt the impact of a couple of shots. The footage has been remastered for HD and the results are mostly beautiful.

However, the footage hasn’t been completely remastered, and there are still a few spots were it shows its age with upscaling on a few of the old VFX shots. At times, these shots are also marred by a visible tracking band as if from an old videotape. Most of the upscaled footage seems to occur where the visual effects were composited with live-action elements (for example, transitions that fade from a person looking at a model to the ship in space, or men looking out windows).

Reconstructing these with new visual effects would have complicated the process of recompositing and editing the remastered footage back together to match what was originally done, so it’s one of those things that’s both easy to gripe over and easy to understand why it wasn’t done, depending on which side the viewer wants to come down on.

Ultimately, it’s better to have the Blu-ray than not, all things considered. For example, outside of how it’s presented in the episodes, HBO still hasn’t done right by the show’s excellent music with a proper soundtrack release. A multitude of composers were used to give each episode its own unique score, but the only official album that has ever been released consists of just the main theme and a handful of vintage songs used throughout the show.

Finally having a digital copy of the show is pretty cool, too.

The only extra carried over from previous DVD releases is a half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette. There’s also a new 11-minute featurette about the remastering process. Most of the lost bonus materials were gimmicky database-type files or videos of speeches that can be pretty easily found online.

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Since the hourlong episodes work fine as standalone pieces as well as within the context of the whole, here’s a capsule review of each one:

1. Can We Do This?
At the height of the Cold War, the need to beat the Soviet Union to the moon requires a rapid expansion of NASA’s manned space program, which kicks off with Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight in 1961. The depiction of Shepard’s flight is pretty much the only content repeated from The Right Stuff, as the miniseries was designed to work as a companion to previously released space movies (and establishing Shepard’s flight here becomes important for a later episode). The bulk of the episode is devoted to the Gemini program, with particular emphasis on the Gemini 8 and 12 missions, the latter mostly because it was the final flight before kicking off the Apollo program. Gemini 8, which was also depicted in First Man, was the first docking of two spacecraft, though the mission ended early after a stuck thruster caused a nearly uncontrollable spin that could have killed the crew of Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott. The depiction of the mission here makes it easier to understand what’s going on than the visceral you-are-there approach chosen for First Man. The most memorable shot of the Gemini 8 sequence is a nice pan out of the window that keeps the ship stationary while the background is spinning, but on Blu-ray the shot is hampered both by being cropped for widescreen and because it appears to be one of the upscaled shots, making it a bit fuzzy.

2. Apollo One
This is one of the more dramatic episodes as it deals with the fallout from the deadly Apollo 1 fire in 1967. The death of three astronauts brings a lot of pressure on NASA to justify the pace of the Apollo program, and the political ramifications are enormous, as Sen. Walter Mondale (played by a pre-“Mad Men” John Slattery) would rather direct funds to causes he sees as more worthwhile. We also see the tolls taken on the support teams who have to come to grips with the causes of the fire.

3. We Have Cleared the Tower
Mark Harmon plays astronaut Wally Schirra preparing for the launch of Apollo 7 to put the space program back on track after a year and a half, while a documentary crew chronicles the efforts to make sure the first manned Apollo mission is a success. However, the episode doesn’t stick around for the mission itself, where in real life the crew became sick and irritable and never flew in space again.

4. 1968
The episode departs from a conventional narrative to frame the voyage of Apollo 8, the first manned flight to lunar orbit, as the highlight of an otherwise turbulent year marked by war and assassinations.

5. Spider
The mini-series veers a bit into the more technical aspects of the lunar missions by focusing on the options for flying to the moon and the engineering and construction of the lunar module, culminating in the Apollo 9 and 10 flights to test it out. The opening credits of the episode are accompanied by the theme song for the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson supermarionation sci-fi series “Fireball XL5,” which I mention only as a means to say that the song appears to have been re-recorded for the Blu-ray, possibly as a requirement for the new fuller sound mix. The episode as originally aired and on DVD used the actual theme song from 1962.

6. Mare Tranquillitatis
This episode covers the historic landing of Apollo 11, with training for the mission presented as a flashback framed by a pre-flight news interview from astronauts Neil Armstrong (Tony Goldwyn), Buzz Aldrin (Bryan Cranston) and Michael Collins (Cary Elwes). This episode, along with the Gemini 8 bits from the first one, are likely now to be most compared with the depiction of the events in First Man, and aside from the technical realism of the visual effects I think they compare favorably. The music by James Newton Howard in inspiring and uplifting, and the episode spends a lot more time on the training, particularly in Buzz Aldrin’s ambiguous lobbying to be the first man on the surface and his angst over being relegated to No. 2 (a perceived slight that might still fuel the real Buzz to this day in both his relentless ambassadorship of the space program and a self-promotion streak that has seen him punch landing deniers, shout at the moon on “30 Rock,” and meet Optimus Prime on the big screen). Aldrin is played here by a then-unknown Bryan Cranston before not only “Breaking Bad,” but “Malcolm in the Middle” as well. Also, for all the talk of however First Man did or did not depict the American flag on the moon, it should be noted that this episode ends with the explicit shot of Neil and Buzz planting the flag.

7. That’s All There Is
This is probably my favorite episode, which recounts the mission of Apollo 12 with a lighter tone and a healthy sense of humor. As close to a comedy as the miniseries can muster, the episode is told from the perspective of Al Bean (Dave Foley). His close friendship and rapport with crewmates Pete Conrad (Paul McCrane) and Dick Gordon (Tom Verica) gives the episode a real “good ol’ boys in space” vibe that’s just ends up being a lot of fun. McCrane as mission commander Conrad is the most notable of the miniseries’ casting switches, as old Hanks buddy Peter Scolari played Conrad in the first episode (and was reportedly unable to reprise the role due to scheduling conflicts with his “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” TV series). McCrane’s easygoing irreverence is such a great fit for the episode that it’s hard to imagine Scolari and his more straightman nature having the same chemistry with the other members of the crew here.

8. We Interrupt This Program
Since Apollo 13 had just come out a few years earlier, and was made by the same people, the natural question arose of how the miniseries would handle its retelling of the ill-fated mission. Rather than retread the drama depicted in the film, however, the miniseries focuses on the media coverage of the event. The result is the weakest episode in the bunch, and easily skipped on rewatch. The decision to make the episode more of a companion to the film was really more a matter of necessity, as the Apollo 13 story was pretty definitively told in the 1995 movie (so much so that it’s easy enough to just watch the movie at this point in the miniseries before, or instead of, this episode). The miniseries version has some nice bits of trivia about the mission that the movie didn’t have time to delve into (such as considerations about disposing of nuclear fuel that was supposed to be left on the moon), and it works fine as a standalone dramatic story about the changing nature of the media in the 1970s. But as an episode of a miniseries about the Apollo program, it falters because it ultimately becomes more about the story of a generational rivalry between fictional newsmen (one played by Jay Mohr) using Apollo 13 as the backdrop, instead of the other way around.

9. For Miles and Miles
This is a solid episode about what happened to Shepard after his 15-minute sub-orbital flight and circumstances that led him to command Apollo 14 and eventually walk on the moon (and play golf there, too). Grounded by an inner-ear disease, Shepard takes a behind-the-scenes role at NASA helping other men prepare to fly to the moon, before a groundbreaking new surgical technique gives him the hope of a cure and a shot at his own lunar mission. Shepard is played with gravitas by Ted Levine, aka Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, with the always-welcome Gary Cole as Ed Mitchell, his lunar module co-pilot.

10. Galileo Was Right
Another episode for the science geeks, this one focuses on how astronauts who were pilots by nature trained to be geologists and lunar explorers standing in as the eyes of the scientific community that remained back on Earth. David Clennon gives a standout performance as geology professor Lee Silver, who trains the crew. The emphasis is on the training for Apollo 15, the first mission to use the lunar rover. Of course, left unsaid in the episode and the miniseries is the scandal the crew caused by taking unauthorized postal covers on the mission that were later sold by stamp dealers, leading to their dismissal from NASA.

11. The Original Wives Club
Sally Field directed this detour about the wives of the nine men in the second group of American astronauts, and the struggles of their home lives as their husbands were away training and flying missions (not to be confused with the 2015 The Astronaut Wives Club miniseries that dealt with the wives of the original Mercury astronauts). The wives are constantly dealing with the twin pressures of fame and the potential that their husbands may never come home, a circumstance that becomes all too real in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire. The episode is placed here because it uses a framing device involving Apollo 16.

12. Le Voyage Dans La Lune
The finale is appropriately epic in scope as it breaks from the established format and abandons the Hanks introduction in favor of a documentary-style recap from Blythe Danner. From there, the episode is structured to contrast the innovative French director Georges Méliès (played by Tchéky Karyo) directing his 1902 masterpiece Le Voyage dans la Lune (aka A Trip to the Moon, or the old silent movie that everyone’s seen in which a spaceship hits the man in the moon in the eye) with the Apollo 17 mission, which involved the only trained geologist-astronaut to walk on the moon. Hanks pops up playing Méliès’ assistant. What makes this episode particularly interesting in retrospect is that the Méliès scenes make for a nice precursor to Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo, which depicts the director as an old man.

The denouement of the episode (and the series) includes some updated visual effects depicting the landing sites after the missions, with all the equipment resting in place. The new effects offer a nice Easter Egg about the Apollo 11 flag.

The miniseries offers a nice recounting of America’s adventures on the moon, but it’s a shame there wasn’t a follow-up that explored some of the other aspects of the space program hinted at in the episodes. Like, maybe what the Russians were planning for their own lunar voyages. Or a companion movie about the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz flights, which marked the real end of the Apollo era.

A depiction of Apollo-Soyuz, a 1975 mission involving craft from the two Cold War powers docking in space, would have provided a particularly apt epilogue given it would have shown Deke Slayton (played by Nick Searcy throughout the miniseries) finally getting into space. This would have paid off one of the most underplayed arcs of the miniseries, as Slayton, selected for the Mercury program but grounded by medical politics, ends up becoming the man who picks the crews, and helps Al Shepard bounce back from a situation not dissimilar to his own.

Even years after the original miniseries, there’s no reason HBO couldn’t do such a follow-up now. After all, it worked for “Deadwood.”