Review: Apollo 11
What was originally intended as a review has turned into a rant, and for that I apologize. But this needs to be griped about. When Todd Douglas Miller’s new “found footage” documentary Apollo 11 was announced for home video release, I scratched my head over the complete lack of a 4K home version. No 4K disc release. No 4K for Vudu or Amazon or iTunes. No 4K on Kaleidescape, even. The film was, after all, showing up in IMAX theaters. Why limit it to 1080p at home? I shrugged my shoulders, wrote it off as perhaps being due to the low quality of the original source elements, and went about my day.
Then I saw the trailer. In 4K. On YouTube, of all places. And with that, it took me all of thirty seconds to go through the first four stages of the Kübler-Ross model.
Denial: I cannot be seeing what I’m seeing.
Anger: Seriously? The film looks this gorgeous and we’re only getting an HD home video release?
Bargaining: Maybe if I send an angry email to the studio . . .
Depression: This sucks. People are going to skip this release because it’s not 4K, which means the studio is going to feel justified in its decision not to release it that way.
To understand why this is a big deal, we need to back up and talk for a minute about the realities of 4K. Most of the movies you buy in Ultra High Definition don’t actually include nearly enough resolution to justify it. Take Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, for example—my nomination for the most visually spectacular film of 2018. It was rendered in 2K resolution (2048×1080). Just a weensy bit higher-res than high-definition, and a long way from the 4,096 x 2,160 pixels that constitute cinema 4K or the 3,840 x 2,160 resolution technically known as UHD. Does that mean you shouldn’t buy Into the Spider-Verse in UHD? Of course not. The high dynamic range transfer is where the real magic of that film happens.
The thing is, this is true of most big Hollywood releases—especially those with any appreciable amount of digital effects wizardry. It’s the HDR that makes them worth buying in 4K. Not the pixel count.
But Apollo 11?
Apollo 11 is one of the handful of cinematic releases this year to actually exist in the form of a true 4K digital intermediate. The bulk of the film—at least the first and third acts—is sourced largely from 65mm military-grade archival footage, which was scanned at an incredible 16K (15360×8640) resolution.
Yes, it’s true that the middle passage of the film—the actual journey to the moon and back—is sourced largely from 16mm and 35mm sources, with some high-resolution photography thrown into the mix. But the opening 25 minutes or so, as well as the last 15 minutes or thereabouts, boast some of the most gorgeous imagery I’ve ever seen from the Apollo program, period. And watching in HD (as I did on Vudu), you can tell at times that some detail is being lost in the down-rezzing. The flag on the side of the Saturn V, for example. The faces of the anxious crowds awaiting the launch.
The biggest crime of this HD video release, though, is that one of the film’s most spectacular moments—the launch of the Saturn V—positively cries out to be seen in high dynamic range. You can tell that the burst of billowing fire flowing out of those massive rocket engines is being held back by the limited gamut of the HD video format.
Should you skip buying (or at least renting) the film as a result? Absolutely not, especially if you have the slightest interest in the space program. This is one of those rare documentaries that does no egregious editorializing, makes no attempt at historical perspective, adds no commentary except for the news broadcasts of the day or recordings from FIDO and CAPCOM, et al. In tone and content, Apollo 11 has far more in common with those amazing Spacecraft Films DVD archives released a decade and a half ago than something like Al Reinert’s moving documentary For All Mankind.
In terms of its imagery, though? I’m a veritable Apollo junkie, and I’ve never seen anything like this film. It’s as much eye candy as it is informative documentary, and the fact that it’s Number One asset is being crippled for home video is a crime.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.