Apollo 18 (2011)
Apollo 18 is the latest in a swelling subcategory of films known as “found footage,” movies that purport to be discovered documents and aesthetically adhere to this premise. That means lots of handheld camerawork, selective editing, and other efforts meant to convey that what the audience is watching is not a movie made by professionals. It’s a professional attempt to look unpolished and amateurish, which is like having a four-star chef make you Taco Bell. 1999’s The Blair Witch Project popularized the found footage concept, and to this day there are still people today hoodwinked into believing it as unvarnished reality. Maybe that’s why NASA issued an actual press statement this week wishing to inform the general public that Apollo 18 is a work of fiction. I don’t think they have much to worry, because very few people will be seeing Apollo 18 and even fewer will enjoy it.
Apollo 18 concerns the failed secret mission of three astronauts (Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins). The astronauts were sent to the moon for the Department of Defense, which means this is the second film of the year to concern a covert reason for landing on the moon. The two astronauts who actually land of the moon’s surface discover a dead Cosmonaut and some strange occurrences. They realize that they have been lied to by their own government and placed in a danger that few can comprehend.
But an intriguing premise can only get you so far and Apollo 18’s clumsy execution makes the movie disintegrate upon reentry, or, any critical thought. A secret NASA mission that went horribly wrong sounds like a great start to a conspiracy thriller, that is until you realize all you’re being presented with is the fake found footage. That means that we spend an eternity watching guys in suits float around, biding their time. Then they go outside and wander around the lunar surface. Then they hear an occasional noise. Or did they? Then they go back to floating around, to make up for the lost time they weren’t floating around. Really, this movie is an hour of nothing. It fails to create a sustainable atmosphere of dread or even basic curiosity. But when locked into the found footage concept, we are generally left with a lot of time on our hands. You would think that the basic premise that people have reassembled this footage would lead to cutting a lot of the filler and just getting to the good parts. It seems almost resentful that this hypothetical editor trying to showcase a long-buried truth would decide that the important stuff can wait. I was so thoroughly bored with Apollo 18 that I started counting stars.
The structure of the story is just too insular and limited in scope. I strongly feel that Apollo 18 would have benefited greatly by opening up its storytelling parameters. It could have kept the found footage motif, but instead of being an entire 90-minute movie the found footage would be one component of a wider faux documentary. Interviews with science experts, conspiracy theorists, former NASA employees speaking under the protection of anonymity, and even family members, particularly the now grown-up son of one of the astronauts holding out hope, would add some balance. It would make the story feel larger and more authentic, let alone give the audience something new to watch. There could have been a parallel story of the discovery of this evidence, the process of getting it authenticated, and the potential dangers that would be exposed. It all seems a little too slapdash and simplistic to just say the footage was uploaded to a website. Anything, really, is what I’m looking for to broaden Apollo 18. There’s so much more that could have been added, but alas we’re stuck with three blander-than-bland, interchangeable characters collecting moon rocks and battling interstellar cabin fever.
Now I’m about to enter into the orbit of some serious spoilers concerning the ending to Apollo 18, so skip to the next paragraph if you wish to remain pure. The entire premise of this mission gone wrong (why did NASA create Apollo 18 uniform patches for a secret mission? It seems counterintuitive to create merchandise for something meant to be covert) is that there is something on the moon that the higher-ups in government want to investigate. This dangerous mystery claimed the life of a Russian cosmonaut, whose body is discovered by our American squad. When exactly the Russians put a man on the moon is never explained; yet another ingredient that would have worked better as a faux documentary. So you have one dead man on the moon, but soon the body count rises. It’s not some strange cosmic virus that infects the astronauts, leading them to psychotic episodes and murder. No, that would have been too plausible. You see, the villain of Apollo 18 is the moon rock. The rocks themselves somehow can transform into spider-like creatures that like to scurry around. Never mind the fact that we’re dealing with life that evolved in an environment without any atmosphere, but what have these moon rocks been doing for billions of years? It seems to me that after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, the rocks must have been like, “There goes the neighborhood.” After twelve moon walkers, my only explanation for the motivation behind these killer rocks is that they just got sick and tired of being disturbed so often (“You stomp around like you own the place, you leave your trash behind, that’s it!”). A post-script tells us that these moon rocks were brought home and sent as “gifts” (their emphasis, not mine) to leaders and dignitaries of foreign countries. What are the implications with this? That the United States has kept its place atop the world because of the threat of moon rocks? Do the moon rocks even work on a planet with a vastly different climate than the arid moon? For that matter, since Apollo 18’s mission ended circling the moon, how the hell was any of the film footage retrieved? It wasn’t broadcast, so how did NASA or any truth-seeker come a hold of this damning evidence of killer lunar rocks? And to think we once thought that the moon was made of cheese. Oh how naïve we all were.
Apollo 18 is probably the most boring of all the found footage horror movies thus far. It does nothing to justify being 90-minutes, lacks any minor thrills or chills, and seems creatively stagnate. There are some cheap jolts, including having a character awake from a dream screaming twice. This Paranormal-Activity-on-the-moon fails to live up to the possibilities of its intriguing premise, instead settling for something aiming for slow-burn but achieves no-burn. The laughable conclusion is meant as a payoff but only for the nuttiest of geologists. Apollo 18 sticks with its core limited concept to the bitter end. This is a disappointment from all angles. It fails to scare, it fails to stimulate, and it fails to entertain big time. In space, no one can hear your boredom.
Nate’s Grade: C-