PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 1995, 12:00am

APOLLO 13. Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris. Directed by Ron Howard. Category II. At Golden Lee, Ocean, Silvercord, UA Queensway, UA Time Square, Windsor.

WHAT is it about our nature that makes us roll our eyes and scoff at anything wholesome, positive, good even? Was it some kind of satanic whisper in the ear that caused me to view Apollo 13 with suspicion? Who knows? But much in the same way that I sometimes catch myself jumping on the bandwagon and sneering at Meryl Streep (even though I know she's a marvellous actress with a fine body of work behind her), the prospect of seeing old Gump-face in a movie directed by old freckle-face filled me with foreboding.

Even worse, pre-release publicity had me gearing up for three of the things I hate most in movies: flying machines of any kind, baby-boomer nostalgia and a happy ending. Things looked bleak.

Some film critic I am. Apollo 13 is a good, wholesome, entertaining movie that works because of its fascinating space rocket sets, baby-boomer nostalgia and, yes, a happy ending.

It stormed all over the US box office and has sparked chit-chat about a possible hat-trick of teary Best Actor acceptance speeches for Hanks.

The key to it lies in its subject matter. Without ever being a space freak, I do consider my general knowledge to be pretty much up to scratch, but the events of April 1970 meant nothing to me before this film. Not for me the drama of a nation holding its breath and praying for three men stuck in space. I was probably showing off in the schoolyard.

If you were up to similar antics, here's a perfect way to catch up on the action. Basically, Apollo 13 was a space mission that started as an anti-climax (eight months after men walked on the moon, the world had become bored with mundane rocket launches), but took a dramatic turn when its three-man crew found itself drifting in space without power and oxygen after an explosion.

All the ingredients were there for a hit Hollywood picture 25 years later: each of the men had a distinctive, scriptwriter-friendly nature, another man had been left at home and the lads only had four days in which to effect an escape. In a classic body-down-a-well scenario, the world was able to observe their crisis but was virtually powerless to help.

So to the characters: Jim Lovell (Hanks) was a kind of Cal Ripken of space travel who was on his last mission as an anxious wife (Kathleen Quinlan) waited back on earth; Jack Swigert (Bacon) was something of a ladies' man who got a late and amusing call-up (let's just say he was piloting his command module in the direction of a young friend at the time) when Gary Sinise was pulled from the mission because he had been exposed to measles. The team was completed by lunar module pilot Fred Haise (Paxton).

Once they got into trouble, it was up to Sinise's character to put his bitterness behind him and desperately concoct a remedy in the simulator. Flight director Ed Harris got to clench his jaw muscles a lot.

Of course, all the publicity blurb dwells on the fact that 'a mission about machines became a mission about character'. This could be a drawback, but the presence of Sinise (alongside Hanks again after his Lieutenant Dan role) is a major plus, Bacon is always dependable, and Paxton is an underrated actor (one whose greatest work came in the classic vampire flick Near Dark).

Of course, Howard and his technical people do a strong job, especially in avoiding Airport-style cliches in their ground-control-to-Major-Tom scenes, but the real strength of Apollo 13 is its story. Yes, it is based on Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger's bittersweet book Lost Moon, but the scriptwriters have done a great job in reminding the Internet generation that the space programme was far more exciting a quarter of a century ago than it is today.