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From the Earth to the Moon

From the Earth to the Moon

HBO Miniseries a Glorious Achievement for Fans of the Human Drama

by Jim Bray

Every once in a while a production comes along that helps restore one's faith in the capabilities and credibility of the usually banal Hollywood movie machine. HBO's remarkable four disc DVD set of the miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" is such an event and I couldn't help but watch it filled with a sense of awe and pride at the accomplishments it recounts.

"Earth" is a wonderful miniseries that was obviously a labor of love for those who made it - a list that includes Tom Hanks (whose vision the project was) and Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment. Detailing Project Apollo's wildly successful mission to put humanity onto the Earth's moon, it focuses equally upon the technology and the people who ultimately pulled off what many consider to be mankind's greatest achievement.

At twelve hours, and twelve episodes, this is a long miniseries. Not too long for those who find themselves drawn into the adventure, however. Even episodes that, at first glance, seem bound to put one to sleep come alive with human drama. For example, Part 5 ("Spider") is about the development of the Lunar Module, detailing the landing craft's nine year evolution from drawing board to working spacecraft. And while the hardware development runs throughout, it's really the story of people rising to a challenge despite many obstacles - a tale of humanity.

Likewise, Part six - the series' halfway point - focuses on the Apollo 11 mission, the one that saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first humans to land on the moon (and left Michael Collins orbiting alone above them). But it isn't just about the trip; it's about answering Big Questions like "Who gets to step out First" (and why?) - and about rising above personal ambition while keeping the Giant Leap for Mankind in its proper short and long term perspectives.

Even the voyage of Apollo 13, which was covered so well by Hanks/Howard et al in the theatrical movie of the same name, was given new life in "From the Earth to the Moon." In fact, you never really see the mission itself; the episode is shot from the perspective of the media coverage and in the process not only puts a new spin on an old story but manages to take some well aimed (and well deserved) shots at the mainstream media as well.

Executive Producer Tom Hanks deserves a lot of credit for this video tour de force. Not only was it his idea to create this paean to the human spirit, he also appears as host, directed Part One ("Can We Do This?", which sets the scene via the Mercury and Gemini programs that preceded Apollo), and was co-writer of other episodes. He's joined by a cast of veteran, journeyman actors like Lane Smith, Mark Harmon, Cary Elwes, Rita Wilson and Diana Scarwid and directors including Frank Marshall, Jon Turteltaub, and David Carson.

Production values are outstanding - amazingly so considering this isn't a big budget Hollywood movie but rather a miniseries made for the premium cable TV channel HBO. It makes you wonder where all the money for the big budget Hollywood movies goes!

They've painstakingly recreated the technology and locations - right down to special effects shots that often look as if they were shot by a documentary crew floating alongside the Apollo missions in their own camera ships (except that you know they weren't). They've even recreated famous images like the Earth rising over the lunar horizon as shot from Apollo 8 at Christmastime 1968 - images we've seen a million times. And the lunar surface scenes look very real, indeed.

This "documentary" feel permeates the entire dozen hours, giving the miniseries a historical quality that belies the present day actors populating it. In fact, when I first heard of the miniseries I thought it was a documentary and, though I was disappointed when I learned that it wasn't, that disappointment turned to awe as the miniseries unfolded.

Call me an emotional fool, or incurable space nut/romantic, but I was hooked by this miniseries virtually from the opening shots - and the more I got into it the more I marveled and the more I wanted it to keep on going. I'm still amazed that a TV channel could pull off such a production.

The transfer onto DVD also shows the TLC (not to mention a competing cable channel, mind you!) the series received.The full screen picture and digital sound are as clear and sharp as one can expect from a DVD (in fact, though the credits clearly show it wasn't, I wondered at times if this series weren't shot in HDTV), and you can access each episode individually or play the entire four parts per each disc as a single movie. The miniseries itself spans three of the set's four discs, with the final platter reserved for the kind of lovely extras the DVD format allows.

The fourth disc is both an interactive video DVD and a DVD-ROM as well. The video section includes several "mini-documentaries" on the making of the series, as well as space-related components like a fascinating virtual tour of the solar system, President John. F. Kennedy's original speech challenging Americans to reach for the stars, and 3D models of some of the ships involved in Apollo. There are also TV promos HBO used to preview the series.

The DVD ROM component has some nifty quicktime3D panoramas of Apollo cockpits and a lovely one of the lunar surface. There's also the "HBO Docking Station," which homes your Browser onto HBO's website from which you can access other space-related information.

"From the Earth to the Moon" is packaged beautifully as well, with a four part sleeve that opens like a big book (it also contains a program guide). Unfortunately, the sleeve looks like it may fall apart with repeated use.

"From the Earth to the Moon" definitely belongs in the DVD library of any fan of space, space movies, or tributes to the human experience. Pricing, at around $90US for the whole shebang, may appear a bit steep but this is a remarkable collectors' item that's well worth the price of admission.

Well done, HBO!

From the Earth to the Moon, from HBO Home Video and Imagine Entertainment
Full Screen, color,
Running time approximately 640 minutes
Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Bostick; Executive Producer Tom Hanks
Various actors and directors


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Updated May 13, 2006