DirectorVarious, produced by Tom Hanks, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, and Michael Bostick
Release Date(s)1998 (July 16, 2019)
Studio(s)Clavius Base, Go Flight, Imagine Entertainment/HBO (HBO Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
[Editor’s Note: HBO chose not to make this title available for review, part of a new policy to limit the amount of review product sent out going forward. So against our better judgment, we’re doing this one on our own dime. But we know that many of you are fans of this miniseries, so – for you – here are our thoughts.]
Few events in human history have had such lasting and far-reaching impact as the Apollo Moon missions. A thousand years from now, people looking back at the 20th century won’t remember the scandals or political controversies. What they will remember, is that in this century, the human race fought two world wars, and survived them. They’ll remember that we discovered nuclear power and (hopefully) survived that too. They’ll remember that we invented the computer, molecular biology, and nanotechnology – all forces likely to have a significant effect in shaping our future. And they’ll remember, that on a momentous day in July of 1969, a human being first set foot on another planet... and for one amazing moment, the whole world looked up in awe and wonder.
No film or television project of its time quite so effectively captured the spirit of those heady days as the Tom Hanks/HBO collaborative effort, From the Earth to the Moon. Certainly there have been better documents of the events themselves – the technical struggles and the history of the time. But no dramatic program has so closely measured the human testament – the hundreds of thousands of Americans who made walking on the Moon possible, and the often dramatic effect the effort had on their personal lives. Based in part on Andrew Chaikin’s impressively comprehensive book A Man on the Moon, this series looks at the race to the Moon a piece at a time, separating the period into twelve hour-long episodes. Each episode has its own director and writer. Each has its own unique style and feel.
Other than Hanks (who appears in the last episode, and introduces many of them), there are few major movie stars in From the Earth to the Moon. There is, however, an outstanding (and quite large) ensemble cast of television and film actors. You will recognize scores of the performers here, among them Rita Wilson (the real-life Mrs. Hanks), Cary Elwes, Bryan Cranston, Mark Harmon, Stephen Root, Tim Daly, Elizabeth Perkins, Chris Isaak, Blythe Danner, Kevin Pollak, Lane Smith, Peter Horton, Adam Baldwin, Al Franken, Ann Cusack, and Jobeth Williams. The episodes are directed by the likes of Hanks, David Frankel, Lili Fini Zanuck, Graham Yost, Frank Marshall, Jon Turteltaub, Gary Fleder, David Carson, Sally Field, and Jonathan Mostow.
From the Earth to the Moon was produced with the unparalleled cooperation of NASA itself, and many of the individuals involved in the actual events participated to ensure the program’s accuracy. Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott actually served as a technical consultant throughout the project, and was always on set during filming. Some $65 million dollars were spent on the production, over 3 years, making From the Earth to the Moon among the most lavish and expensive miniseries produced at the time. And executive producer Tom Hanks brought the full measure of his intense personal interest in the space program to bear on the series, directing one episode, starring in another, and writing (at least in part) four more.
The 3-disc Blu-ray release includes all 12 episodes in remastered HD, four per disc. Here’s a summary of each:
Part 1 – Can We Do This?
Directed by Tom Hanks, this first episode starts the series nicely, beginning with newsreel footage of the first launch of a human into space – Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. We learn that the Russians’ goal is nothing short of landing a man on the Moon, and the American space program is woefully behind. Soon however, American astronaut Alan Shepard (played by Ted Levine, whom you may remember as the serial killer Buffalo Bill, from The Silence of the Lambs), makes a successful sub-orbital hop into space. A little more than a year later, with but a few successful Mercury flights completed, President Kennedy announces a startling goal – America must walk on the Moon within nine years, and beat the Russians there at all cost.
The task of doing this, falls upon hard-pressed NASA administrator James Webb (Dan Lauria – Kevin’s father from The Wonder Years). We are soon made to understand the sheer audacity and difficulty of the task at hand. And as we watch the space program develop through Projects Mercury and Gemini, we are introduced to many of those individuals (both engineers and astronauts) that will bring Kennedy’s vision to reality, and who will appear throughout the series.
Part 2 – Apollo One
One of my personal favorites, Apollo One looks at the tragic 1967 launch pad fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA is scrambling to launch the first of the Apollo test flights, and everyone involved has ‘Moon fever.’ In the mad scramble to meet the tight flight schedule, and given the complexity of the effort, mistakes are inevitable... and in this case fatal. After the accident occurs, NASA personnel and civilian contractors struggle to come to terms with the accident, and begin the tedious and unpleasant process of determining what went wrong.
Three performances impress in this installment: Kevin Pollack (as Apollo program manager Joe Shea, who grapples with the belief that, had he been in the capsule for the test as originally planned, he could have put out the fire), James Rebhorn (as a North American executive struggling under intense pressure from NASA to build the Apollo spacecraft quickly), and Nick Searcy (as Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury astronauts and head of NASA’s astronaut office, who must deal with the loss of his best friend, Grissom).
Part 3 – We Have Cleared the Tower
With the Apollo spacecraft’s technical problems hopefully resolved, NASA prepares to fly the first manned Apollo mission – Apollo 7. Assigned to lead the crew is Mercury veteran Wally Schirra (Mark Harmon). There’s a tense atmosphere at NASA, as everyone grapples with lingering fears and doubts after the tragic fire. And as the astronauts and other personnel race to ensure that nothing will go wrong on Apollo 7, a TV documentary crew (led by Peter Horton of TV’s thirtysomething) scrutinizes their every move.
Here we take an interesting look at the personal lives of the astronauts, particularly Schirra, for whom Apollo 7 will be his final mission before retiring. We also get to see some interesting behind-the-scenes stories, including a young nurse that works closely with the astronauts, and Guenter Wendt, whom the astronauts refer to as ‘the Führer of the launch pad.’
Part 4 – 1968
1968 was an extremely turbulent year on Planet Earth. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and war protests were breaking out all across America. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and rioting occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, further eroding any public sense of security. But in late December, just as the year appeared a total loss, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first human beings to orbit the Moon. And on Christmas Eve, these three men gave humanity its first view of the whole Earth from space – a dazzling vision... and a reason to hope.
This is another of the series’ best episodes, full of great drama. As Apollo 8 slips behind the far side of the Moon, out of communication range, there’s tremendous tension back on Earth. Will their rocket engine fire, gently nudging the spacecraft into lunar orbit? Would it work again, less than a day later, to send them home again? Frank Borman’s wife (Rita Wilson) is prepared for the worst. But as the astronauts round the dark side, they encounter a stunning sight: Earthrise.
Part 5 – Spider
So Kennedy said we’ve got to land on the Moon. How exactly do you go about designing, building and testing the spacecraft that will do it? The pressure’s high – the Lunar Module (LEM) simply must work the first time it flies on Apollo 9, if NASA is to beat the Russians to the Moon. But Tom Kelly and the engineers in the Grumman Engineering Bullpen are just the guys for the job.
Spider is my second favorite episode. The screenwriting, acting and direction here accomplish what I find to be an absolutely amazing feat: making the mind-numbingly technical subject of spacecraft design thoroughly entertaining... and even noble. Matt Craven (L.A. Doctors) is perfect as Tom Kelly, the Grumman executive who must get the LEM done on time and then, like any parent, must let it go. And you might recognize Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg from Murphy Brown), Clint Howard (Ron Howard’s brother, who appeared in Apollo 13), and Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) in this episode as well.
Part 6 – Mare Tranquilitatis
With a mere six months left before Kennedy’s end of the decade deadline, all of the blood, sweat and tears have lead to Apollo 11. If all goes well, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin will become the first human beings to set foot on another planet, while Michael Collins orbits high above. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the whole world stops to watch.
Directed by Frank Marshall, Mare Tranquilitatis (which gets its name from the region of the Moon on which Apollo 11 landed), looks at the tensions leading up to the landing and the breathless attention given to it by most of the human race. It also examines the very human emotions of the astronauts themselves – Armstrong (Tony Goldwyn) seems to have difficulty acknowledging the historic nature of the mission, while Aldrin (Bryan Cranston) longs to be the first to walk on the surface.
Part 7 – That’s All There Is
Everyone knows the names of the first two men to walk on the Moon, but do you remember who was number three and four? No matter... at least not to Pete Conrad and Al Bean. They’re just glad to be going in the first place, with their good buddy Dick Gordon along to mind the spacecraft while they’re on the surface. And while Armstrong and Aldrin only spent a few hours on the Moon, Conrad and Bean will be staying for a while, and showing folks how to do it in style.
This story of Apollo 12 is, by far, my favorite installment of the series. A mission for the everyman in all of us, That’s All There Is gives us a chance to see three blue collar guys, good friends all, experiencing the most amazing time in their lives. It’s surprisingly funny, touching and right on target. Good old ‘Beano’ (Dave Foley from News Radio) even gets to save the day. You can almost imagine yourself in his shoes. First rate.
Part 8 – We Interrupt This Program
Most of us have seen Apollo 13, so we know the story of this near-tragic mission fairly well. With this in mind, screenwriters Peter Osturland and Amy Brooke Baker have taken a decidedly different tack to this retelling of the doomed flight of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert.
In We Interrupt This Program, we follow the story of Apollo 13, as told by veteran TV newsman and space reporter Emmitt Seaborn (Lane Smith from Lois and Clark, here playing a fictional character based on real-life journalist Walter Cronkite). Seaborn struggles with a public that has lost interest in the space program... that is until something goes wrong. He must also deal with the new blood at the network – a young, rising-star reporter, who is more concerned with getting the scoop than upholding journalistic integrity.
Part 9 – For Miles and Miles
Shortly after becoming the first American in space, astronaut Alan Shepard (Ted Levine) was grounded from active status because of an inner-ear disorder that caused severe attacks of vertigo. But after watching crew after crew leave the Earth on Gemini and Apollo, Shepard decides to risk an experimental ear surgery that could pave the way for a new mission – a trip to the Moon as commander of Apollo 14.
Part 10 – Galileo Was Right
The goal of Apollo 15 is geology – to gather the best rock samples from a region of the Moon rich and varied in geologic history. If the astronauts gather the right samples, the result for scientists will be nothing short of a look back into the very history of the Moon itself. Astronauts Dave Scott (Brett Cullen, whom you may recognize from Apollo 13) and Jim Irwin will even have a lunar rover to haul the rocks back to the LEM. But time on the surface will be critical, and the astronauts are... well, astronauts. They know nothing about geology and couldn’t tell one rock from another. Enter Farouk El-Baz and Lee Silver (David Clennon – Miles Drentell of thirtysomething), a pair of eclectic scientists who must whip the astronauts into shape... and make them into world-class rock hunters.
Part 11 – The Original Wives Club
Sally Field directs this installment of the series, which follows the unsung heroism of the wives of the Apollo astronauts. The demands of having to maintain a brave face for the cameras placed tremendous strain on their lives and their marriages. And with every mission came the risk and unspoken dread of another accident. Rita Wilson, Wendy Crewson, Elizabeth Perkins and Ann Cusack star, while Tom Hanks co-writes.
Part 12 – Le Voyage Dans La Lune
All of NASA’s hopes for the future (more Moon missions, a lunar base, a manned mission to Mars) were dashed when Congress decided to pull the plug on its support and funding. Apollo 17 would be the last flight to the Moon for the foreseeable future.
In this final, stirring installment of From the Earth to the Moon, writer Tom Hanks tells a tale to keep the vision alive. As astronaut Gene Cernan takes mankind’s last step on the lunar surface, we learn of the extraordinary efforts of visionary filmmaker George Méliès. It was Méliès, in 1902, who first brought to life for audiences the story of mankind’s greatest adventure... the story of a trip from the Earth to the Moon.
So those are the episodes. Now… some of you may remember that when HBO first announced they were going to back the Blu-ray format back in 2009, From the Earth to the Moon was one of the first titles they announced. And then they never released it, because they obviously realized they hadn’t finished the production in forward-thinking HD. Though it was shot on film, post production was done in SD only, so it would require extensive remastering on the order of what Paramount did for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Personally, I feared we’d never get this miniseries on Blu-ray… BUT, if we did, it would happen in time for the Apollo 11 Moon landing anniversary. Thankfully, that is what’s happened. However, while this project has been remastered, it’s not a FULL remaster. While the original camera negative has been scanned in HD and restored, the image is now being presented in 1.78:1 widescreen vs. 1.33:1 full frame as it was originally broadcast. That’s not surprising, given other recent TV remasters, but it will probably irritate purists. As a practical matter: In some cases, you’re losing material on the top and bottom, in some cases you’re gaining material on the sides. It’s not ideal, but I do think the framing works in widescreen. In a perfect world, HBO would have remastered the miniseries in both formats, but that’s extremely unlikely given declining disc sales, the need to distribute this material to the widest possible HD audience, and the changing economics of the home video industry. In terms of image quality, the resolution is genuinely improved – particularly the live action footage – though a few live action shots are still upscaled (possibly, the negative for those shots wasn’t located) and retain a digitally processed look from the original late 90s post process. Much of the actual NASA archival and newsreel footage used in the miniseries was also upscaled, probably retained for stylistic reasons. Contrast is improved however, with more natural blacks (the DVD’s shadows were sometimes a bit crushed looking), again save for the upscaled material. As for the color grade, that’s more complicated.
The Inside the Remastering featurette on this set makes a few interesting points. First, HBO’s production team made a very specific choice to preserve the original visual tone of the miniseries, which had a more “TV production” look – it was brightly lit, candy-colored, and high contrast. I’ve spent a few hours going back and comparing the remastered image to the original DVD release (reviewed here at The Bits way back in 1998), and they have indeed faithfully retained that look. The thing is, Blu-ray uses a different color space (REC 709 vs. DVD’s SMTP C) and has greater color bandwidth. So while they’ve preserved the color palette accurately, the colors look more vibrant on Blu-ray and it’s a tad jarring until you get used to it. This is especially true of the visual effects, which were always bright and a bit cartoonish on DVD. That’s still true in the remaster. So again, it’s a choice to preserve the character of the original presentation (which the new HD image does), but it may seem a little jarring on Blu-ray after years of watching more modern color grades on the format.
The other thing the featurette points out is that the remastering team has done some 350 new all-digital effects shots and have replaced elements with new digital models in many shots. But they didn’t upgrade EVERY effects shot – some are upscaled and a bit of the original “digital” processing remains. And sometimes, they’ve actually replaced physical models with new digital ones – strange at first blush, but the new models are actually much more detailed. The good news is that the new visual effects shots by and large look great – they’re designed to replicate the original shots but are now intentionally composed for the widescreen frame. The downside, again, is that the shots are not photo accurate – we’ve now seen far better in films like First Man and in actual historical footage like that of the recent Apollo 11 documentary – they retain the original cartoonish lighting and coloring. Knowing what the remastering team has done and why they’ve done it, you have to kind of give them a mulligan here. I would, however, feel a lot better about this remaster if we had any idea whether any of the original directors or producers for this series were consulted and approved the work.
The real star of this effort is the new Dolby Atmos mix each episode has been given. What a difference it makes! The original episodes were simple stereo. The new Atmos is a tremendous experience – not aggressive, but wonderfully immersive with full yet natural tones and a bit more low end. The soundstage has much more depth now and thus more impact. It puts you right in the Command Module, in the LEM, and in the heart of Mission Control. Clarity is terrific, dialogue is clean, and Michael Kamen’s score is presented with good fidelity. The height channels engage nicely during launches and other moments. This mix isn’t going to compete with reference surround sound for more modern films, but it really does enrich the viewing experience of From the Earth to the Moon. Optional audio is also available in Spanish DTS 2.0 surround, with English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Extras on the set are presented on Disc Three and include:
- Behind the Scenes: Making of “From the Earth to the Moon” (SD 1.33 – 29:34)
- Inside the Remastering Process (HD 1.78 – 11:09)
Note that the Behind the Scenes piece is exactly the same as the HBO First Look featurette on the original DVD release.
Missing from the original DVD release are:
- Special Effects (4:07)
- A Virtual Tour of the Solar System
- 3D Models of the Ships
- Mission Objectives
- Kennedy’s Speech
- Launch Pad (12 TV spots – SD 1.33)
The Special Effects feature is obviously no longer relevant and nearly all of the other features were low-resolution interactive text and menu features designed for DVD by 1K Studios. They were groundbreaking at the time, but look cheesy now so they’re not much of a loss. The Launch Pad feature is very much missed however – it’s just a collection of 12 period HBO TV spots for the production, but they’re pretty good and I wish they had been included. There is at least a Digital Copy code.
As I said earlier, I’d honestly given up on ever seeing this miniseries released on Blu-ray, so the fact that it has been – and it’s actually been given some decent remastering for HD too – is a pleasant surprise. Yes, it’s 1.78:1 and yes, it’s not perfect. Your own mileage may vary, but as someone who’s loved this miniseries since the original HBO broadcasts, I think the results of this remastering effort are mostly worth it. Thankfully, From the Earth to the Moon retains all of its power, majesty, and entertainment value in HD. But some of you may wish to keep your original DVD set for the original aspect ratio and missing extras.
- Bill Hunt