Apollo 18 (2011)
Gonzalo López-Gallego’s Apollo 18 (2011) indulges in a bit of conspiracy-minded thinking around the Apollo Moon missions, but in this case, the conspiracy is surprisingly not that the original Moon landing was faked. Instead, this film presents an alternate history tale where the cancelled Apollo 18 mission actually did make it to the Moon after all, launching in secrecy and then being completely covered up by the government… until now.
An introductory caption informs us that the movie we’re about to see is made up of recently discovered footage of the mission, allowing the true story of Apollo 18 to finally be told. Yes, that means this is yet another found footage film, with all the positives and negatives (though, mostly the negatives) that entails.
We start off with home movies from 1974, showing a few families having a barbeque together. As the footage rolls, we learn the men are astronauts, and we see interviews where they reveal their surprise that the Apollo 18 mission has been reinstated, even though NASA’s funding was cut. But the catch is that the mission is now being undertaken by the Department of Defense, supposedly to set up devices on the Moon to monitor the Soviets. The astronauts are sworn to secrecy and can’t even tell their wives and kids that they’ll be landing on the Moon.
The film then cuts to the guys prepping for liftoff. There’s stock footage of a rocket taking off at night, followed by the astronauts staring in awe at the Earth from outer space. Along the journey, the three guys manage to make lots of small talk to keep their minds active, and they continue to film themselves, because apparently NASA will need all of this footage later.
They finally reach the Moon, and after a few days in orbit, the guys get ready to land on the Moon. But only Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen) and Captain Ben Anderson (Warren Christie) will actually set foot on the moon, while Lt. Colonel John Grey (Ryan Robbins) will stay in orbit aboard the command module.
The two men say their goodbyes to Grey and make their way down to the surface in the lunar module. After a rough landing, Anderson is the first one to step out onto the Moon, but he doesn’t make a speech, since no one is watching or listening. Things go according to plan as they set up an American flag and collect a few rock samples to take back with them. All the while, the two record each other talking about what an amazing experience they’re having, so clearly, things are going to take a turn for the worst pretty soon.
Not long after landing, the two experience a lot of problems communicating with the command module, as well as with Mission Control. This is written off as a minor technical problem, and the astronauts carry on with their duties. But then Anderson discovers that some of the rock samples he collected have mysteriously vanished.
Later, they venture outside the ship, and are shocked to discover footprints that belong to someone else. They follow the tracks to a Russian lunar module. Apparently, the Soviets landed on the Moon in almost exactly the same spot, and somehow the Americans didn’t know about it until now.
They search for the cosmonauts, and eventually come upon the gruesome sight of a mummified body in a nearby crater. They finally get back in touch with Mission Control, who don’t seem terribly concerned about a dead Russian, and simply tell the men that they’ve completed their mission and should get ready to depart the Moon.
But then more strange things happen. First, the American flag they planted goes missing, and then the ship is rocked by some unknown force. Walker goes outside to investigate, and begins to scream about something in his helmet just before he collapses. He’s brought back inside by Anderson, who discovers Walker now has a gaping wound in his chest, and he actually pulls a Moon rock out of the wound.
Just then, the rock seems to move on its own, so Walker smashes it with a hammer. The two astronauts eventually figure out that the devices they planted to monitor the Soviets are really here to monitor something else entirely.
Walker then becomes incredibly sick with what can only be described as Space Madness, and he proceeds to use his hammer to smash up the ship beyond repair. Now running low on air, Anderson tries to get the both of them over to the Russian lunar module to survive, but Walker goes crazy and runs off. Anderson then catches a glimpse of more rock-like creatures in the darkness, and so he races to the Russian craft on his own.
There, he makes contact with Mission Control. He’s told that due to their exposure to the Space Madness, they can’t be rescued, and will be left to die on the Moon. But Anderson refuses to accept his fate, and comes up with a plan to make it off the lunar surface and rendezvous with Grey up in orbit. That is, if he can survive a crazed Walker, who’s still got that hammer and is determined to destroy the ship.
The creatures are suddenly swarming inside Walker’s helmet, causing his head to explode. Anderson is finally able to lift off, only to find the Soviet ship is full of the creatures. He loses control and ends up crashing directly into Grey’s ship. After the two ships collide (off-camera, of course), a final caption suggests all the Moon rocks the Apollo missions brought back are actually living creatures, and that’s the end.
When done well, found footage films can be highly immersive and make you feel like you’re a part of the action. Unfortunately, Apollo 18’s home movies wear out their welcome after the first five minutes. There’s so much downtime between events that it takes an eternity to get to the action we’re supposed to be getting immersed in. The film is only ninety minutes long, and still feels hopelessly drawn out. (The closing credits themselves are even played at an extremely slow speed to pad out the runtime, meaning a movie with three actors and two sets has longer closing credits than Iron Man 3.)
And when we finally do get to the action, it’s filmed in an annoying way where all you see is a shaky close-up of one of the astronauts screaming, and it’s left to our imaginations to piece together what just happened. The movie seems to be taking the less-is-more approach, and attempting to make things scarier by not showing us everything, but it unfortunately indulges in this concept to a ridiculous degree.
Whenever the astronauts come upon something scary inside a crater, all they have on hand to illuminate it is a strobe light that blinks on and off. Why wouldn’t astronauts have flashlights with a continuous beam? The answer is obvious; it’s so we can get a half-second flash of a special effect that wouldn’t look the least bit scary in normal light.
You would think that with the lack of action and an actual story, we would at least be given some strong characters to hold our interest. Instead, we’re presented with three astronauts who drop a few details about their family lives, but never actually show any personality. The only actual character detail in the whole movie is when we find out Anderson is a Yes fan who brought along his cassette of Close to the Edge to listen to a couple of times in the film.
Although the dialogue doesn’t seem too forced or awkward between the characters, their small talk is boring and gives no insight into these men. And their plight of being left to die on the Moon should have been emotionally affecting, but these three only garner total indifference.
The film is supposedly a horror/thriller, but even for a nervous wreck like me, the jump scares simply weren’t there. The movie fails to build up any sense of dread about what might happen next, and the ultimate reveal of the creatures, which are basically Moon rock hermit crabs, just isn’t frightening or creepy in the least.
And then there’s the abrupt ending, leaving us with no satisfactory explanation for anything that happened. Why did they have to send the astronauts to the Moon secretly? Why were the Russians there? How did they retrieve all the footage the astronauts shot when (spoilers!) they didn’t even make it back to Earth? It doesn’t make any sense.
Apollo 18 can probably only be appreciated by fans of mundane home movies. The story is a predictable, slowly-paced bore, and if you get motion sickness easily, you might want to skip it altogether, as it’s nearly as bad in this regard as The Blair Witch Project. This is unfortunately the worst kind of found footage film: the kind that uses the technique as a gimmick to cover up its total lack of a plot.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]