With the news that Tom Hanks will be returning to orbit in the adaptation of Mattel astronaut toy Major Matt Mason, it’s as good a time as ever to be reminded of his love for all things which are space-related.
Known for his portrayal of Jim Lovell in 1995’s Apollo 13, Hanks reunited with director Ron Howard and his company Imagine Entertainment to work on an HBO mini-series which commemorated NASA’s whole Apollo program. The end result was 1998’s From The Earth To The Moon, which over the course of a dozen episodes looked at both the triumphs and tragedies of America’s efforts to put a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s, and ahead of the Soviet Union.
As well as acting as executive producer, Hanks also directed and either co-wrote or penned by himself a number of the episodes in the run. Based largely upon the seminal book by Andrew Chaikin, A Man On The Moon, the mini-series had a focus upon each of the Apollo missions, giving the less flashy or well-known ones their own moment of fame or recognition, given the fact that they might have been overshadowed by the first Moon landing, or – following this – growing public apathy towards the program.
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Hanks opens every episode, appearing as himself, and setting the stage for what the audience is about to see. From The Earth To The Moon feels closer to an anthology than a mini-series, as each episode has a very different style, as well as their own takes on the momentous events of Apollo, building up to the Moon landing, and then the eventual rundown and cessation of all further missions. Some instalments are outright comedic, others more dour and sullen when faced with depicting various disasters which befell the project, but it’s all wonderfully acccessible and gripping stuff, even for casual viewers.
Due to its connections with Hanks and Howard, it shares a lot of its DNA with Apollo 13, particularly as Ron’s brother Clint Howard turns up, playing one of the Mission Control team, just as he did in the movie. It also feels like a close relation of Philip Kaufman’s 1983 movie The Right Stuff, which adapted Tom Wolfe’s study of the early days of the race to space, from the X-Planes, to the development, launch and ending of Mercury, America’s first attempt to put man into space, and return him safely to the Earth. All three works nicely complement each other, with none of them happening to step on the others’ toes, or encroaching upon the particular stories they’re telling.
The show also has an impressive cast list, including Mark Harmon, Cary Elwes, Gary Cole, Sally Field, Elizabeth Perkins, Dave Foley (best known as one of the Canadian comedy troupe The Kids In The Hall), and – years before finding fame in Malcolm In The Middle and Breaking Bad – Bryan Cranston. Having already been released for the home market shortly after original broadcast, and then a ‘Signature Edition’ in 2005, HBO have reissued a remastered version on Blu-ray for the programme’s 21st anniversary, as well as 2019 marking five decades since the Eagle landed, so it’s a good opportunity to actually have From The Earth To The Moon upgraded.
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When it was first made, the show was put together for standard definition viewing, and shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. When the ‘Signature Edition’ then came out in 2005, widescreen TVs were more commonplace, so the picture was cropped to present a 1.78:1 version. Unfortunately, this meant that detail was missing from the top and bottom of the picture, which is never an ideal outcome, particularly as it seems to go against how it was originally filmed and then assembled by the makers back in 1998. It was hoped the remastering of this new version would correct this.
Sadly, wiser heads haven’t prevailed, so it means we’ve got another cropped version of the original 1.33:1 footage, because it seems people can’t be trusted to work out how to change the aspect ratio setting on their TVs, or (Heaven forfend) have to sit through a programme the way that it was intended, and have to see it ‘pillarboxed’. Still, at least they’ve done what Star Trek: The Next Generation did on Blu-ray, by going back to the original film material, and scanning it for high definition, before effectively rebuilding the series from the ground up, making it look better than the original transmission.
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In the same way that TNG had to redo all its special effects from scratch, HBO has done the same thing here, choosing not to use conventional models like they did in the first place, but taking advantage of the advances in VFX technology, and creating the replacement visuals using CGI instead. It certainly makes a marked difference, but not necessarily for the better – there are moments where it seems too crisp or sharp, and too obviously digital, so it isn’t always an improvement on the original. But at least the overall picture quality is much improved, as it used to look like it had been filmed through a fog at times, like many ’80s and ’90s shows that were shot on celluloid but composited or edited on video.
One thing which From the Earth To The Moon on DVD and Blu-ray has managed to demonstrate is the law of diminishing returns – each release of it has managed to end up with fewer extras than before. It wasn’t exactly replete with features and bonus material in the first place, but for some reason it’s ended up being slowly whittled down with each new iteration, to the point that we’ve lost so much of the original extras, such as trailers or adverts. All we have now is a ‘making of’, as well as an all-new look at the remastering of the series. And that’s it. No retrospective, no celebration, no new interviews with cast or crew. An awful pity, really.
All in all, this remastered release is one small step in the right direction, but one giant leap is needed to provide a truly worthwhile and comprehensive edition, which matches up to the actual quality of the series itself.