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Apollo 13 in HD DVDApollo 13 on HD DVD

By Jim Bray

The first shots have been fired in the high definition DVD format war, and so far the winner is the HD DVD format being pushed by Toshiba and its little friends, if only because Sony and its Blu-ray partners are playing catch up.

I have no intention of taking sides in this war, having no vested interest in seeing either one win; I just want it to be over so consumers can embrace whichever high definition DVD format wins, because if my first experience is any benchmark, it'll be really good.

In fact, I'm now suffering angst attacks at the thought of having to watch any of the thousands of "old fashioned" DVD's in my library. And that's despite having been a huge fan and booster of the format for many years.


I lost my HD DVD virginity to Universal's Apollo 13, which tells the real life drama of a nearly-disastrous moon mission and is a powerful tribute to NASA and the ingenuity of the human being.

Tom Hanks stars as Jim Lovell, a true astronaut hero and the leader of the first crew to reach the moon, at Christmas 1968 (they orbited that time, but didn't land). Hanks is joined by Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon (whose character replaces Gary Sinise's in the Command Module) on their lonely voyage.

On the road to the moon, an explosion rocks the Command Module, forcing the crew to shut it down and take refuge in the Lunar Module, using it as a lifeboat to ride around the moon and head back to earth – with luck, before their oxygen runs out.

The crew displays the type of heroism one expects from such people, and Hanks, Paxton and Bacon are all more than up to the task of portraying these larger-than-life figures. But it's the unsung people back in Houston, led by Ed Harris as flight director Gene Kranz, who are the real story. Their efforts, improvisations, and innovations - coupled with the astronauts' sure fingers on the rocket engine control - ensured the safe return of the crippled ship and saved the lives of the crew.

It's an epic adventure that would work well as fiction, except that it isn't.

The spaceship scenes, from the Saturn V rocket's final assembly to the Command Module's eventual splashdown, are beautifully re-enacted thanks to the special effects wizardry of Digital Domain. It looks as if it were shot on location, back in time.

Adding to the realism is a number of shots done aboard NASA's "vomit comet," a jet that flies a parabolic course through the near-earth heavens to allow several seconds of free fall weightlessness. This allowed the cinematic Apollo 13 crew to float around their spaceship as they would have in real life. Must have been a hoot, too!

The "secondary" stories are also well told, including the ordeals through which the astronauts' wives are put by the circumstances and the damn news media.

Speaking of secondary stories, the HD DVD also includes  a running commentary with director Ron Howard, a commentary by Jim and Marilyn Lovell and three documentaries to sweeten the deal. They're accessed through a new menu treatment that's far less annoying than the ones on many DVD's. Let's hope this is a trend.

The original DVD looks and sounds wonderful, though it's by no means the best example of the species. But the picture is colorful, sharp, bright and clean.  

Audio on both versions is outstanding. I didn't have a chance to hook my loaner HD DVD player through its 5.1 channel analog outputs, but when listening to both versions via coaxial digital outputs I could find subtle differences between them, naturally favoring the HD version. High definition DVD's are supposed to offer even better sound than today's already-terrific DVD's, via technologies such as "Dolby Digital Plus," but while I did notice better clarity and a little more "oomph" on the HD version (especially during the exciting launch sequence which is chapter 13 on the DVD and chapter four on the HD DVD – and what's with that difference?), it wasn't a spectacular distinction.

Highly Defined….

But the HD DVD picture reaches out and grabs you, and is perhaps as far above the original 480i DVD as DVD's are to videocassettes. The HD picture, which I watched in 1080i, is more detailed, with better color saturation and a lot better sharpness. There's a depth to it, a film-like look, I've never seen in home video before other than with the occasional high definition TV broadcasts.

And I think HD DVD and Blu-ray have the capability of being better than HDTV, because your typical cable and satellite television data delivery is at around eight Mbps (Megabits per second) maximum, while HD-DVD players are supposed to be capable of speeds more like 14 to 16 Mbps, with peaks of up to 40 Mbps if the content demands. It's kind of like the difference in water pressure between a garden hose and a fire hose.

I guess the real test for that would be to watch a high definition DVD side by side with a high definition TV broadcast of the same material, but I haven't had a chance to do that yet.

But I did watch the Apollo 13 HD DVD side by side with its DVD counterpart, which right now is the more important comparison. And the HD DVD makes the conventional version look like you're watching through a screen door, with visible pixelization and colors that look washed out compared to the hi def. I kid you not: by the time the opening credits had rolled I was ready to throw away my reference DVD player –a high end Rotel that continues to serve me extremely well.

And I was delighted to find that Universal's Apollo 13 HD DVD played in true 1080i high definition via component video output to my TV.

Let's hope this continues. Otherwise, millions of "early adopters" of high definition televisions (the people who traditionally drive new consumer technologies through their buying dollars and would be logical first customers for HD DVD and/or Blu-ray) will be screwed, forced to buy new, HDMI-equipped TV's despite the fact that their existing sets may still be capable of performing beautifully for several years. This is due to Hollywood greed and paranoia personified by a copy protection scheme that'll hamstring older HDTV's, forcing them to output in 480p, which defeats the purpose of going HD.

A copy protection technology that'll undoubtedly be beaten by some kid with a PC, given the history of such schemes.

Connecting, copy protection and format issues aside, high definition DVD (at least as embodied by Universal's HD DVD version of Apollo 13) is for real – and it's great.

There was a bit of a recurring glitch during playback of the HD DVD. Four or five times during the movie it froze for a few seconds, kind of like you see sometimes on conventional DVD's when they change layers. But this was worse, and it happened repeatedly. I don't know if it was the player or the disc, though I suspect it was the player. It wasn't enough to kill my enjoyment of the movie, but it wasn't the best way to kick off a new format, either.

Would I recommend spending the hundreds of dollars required to enter the world of HD DVD or Blu-ray? Only if you're the type who just has to have the best, and has to have it now. One reason is that HD titles are few and far between right now, though of course this will change over time (as long as you're lucky enough to back the winning format).

And that's where the caveat comes in: as long as the format war continues it's probably in your best interest to let the protagonists beat their heads against the wall on someone else's dime. It would be a shame to end up on the short end of the format stick because the companies pushing them can't get their act together.

Remember the betamax!

Apollo 13, from Universal Home Video HD DVD
140 minutes, 1080p High Definition anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), Dolby Digital Plus
Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris
Produced by Brian Grazer,
Screenplay William Broyles, Jr. & Al Reinert, Directed by Ron Howard

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

We welcome your comments!