Sunday, 6 November 2011

Film Review: Apollo 18

You might be forgiven for thinking you missed the previous four outings since Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, but fortunately unlike the innumerable amount of Police Academy films, Apollo 18 stands alone. The film's viral campaign purports that all footage was edited from 84 hours worth of film recently uploaded to the internet. By whom, we are not told. The idea, obviously, is to rope audiences into thinking that this is the true story of how NASA and the Department of Defence launched a final secret manned mission to the moon after the Apollo Programme had officially been shut down. What the astronauts found there has been kept under wraps ever since.

In 1973, NASA launched Apollo 18, a top secret mission to the moon under military auspices after it was announced that the manned moon missions would be cancelled after Apollo 17. Unbeknown to the world until now, classified footage leaked onto the space based equivalent of Wikileaks,, unveils the fait of man's last mission to the moon.

In reality Apollo 18 is of course one of those faux found-footage gimmicks resembling a high-tech Blair Witch Project. It's directed by a Spaniard named Gonzalo López-Gallego, written by newcomer Brian Miller and produced by Russian filmaker Timur Bekmambetov. The astronauts are credited as Warren Christie, Ryan Robbins and Lloyd Owen. You can be sure as shit this premise is entirely fictional.

On the moon astronauts Walker (Owen) and Anderson (Christie) discover a Soviet lunar module, a dead cosmonaut and a dangerous form of extraterrestrial life in a plot that will delight conspiracy theorists. Indeed, Apollo 18 feeds a whole subculture of conspiracy theories surrounding the space race involving Nazis landing on the moon, secret bases on the moon and many more if you just take the time to google it all. What's most enthralling about Apollo 18 however is that it is a reasonably convincing simulation of the hours of grainy moon coverage which kept our parents and grandparents glued to TV screens in the heyday of the Apollo missions.

Plot-wise, as a horror/mystery/found-footage genre this is very basic and ultimately rather simplistic. Foremost, the premise of being stuck on the moon rests on its own laurels for the creation of dramatic effect rather than adding anything else to heighten tensions. It's not particularly scary either, relying heavily on sudden noises and jarring smash cuts for cheap thrills. It's psychological devices to 'get you to think' are also reasonably simplistic, for example explicitly having one of the astronauts mention the Watergate scandal when they begin to suspect a cover up as if to allude that of course the government would be within their bounds to send secret missions to the moon without anyone knowing about it! As their situation deteriorates and Mission Control becomes increasingly unhelpful, the intrepid spacemen soon realise they're on their own out there with nothing to rely on but themselves and a space hammer.

It does take a while for Apollo 18 to really get going, and even at such a short run time of 86 minutes it's a little thin on the ground. Amazingly it even feels like it's stalling for time in places. You would think that if this really did come from 84 hours worth of footage then why does it take so long to get to the good stuff? Fortunately its unique visuals are enough to stave off boredom. It's nothing new for the genre admittedly - black and white video, shaky handheld camerawork, strange static interrupting communications and faded colour home movies - but the fact this is all shot in the style of documentaries about 60s and 70s NASA missions are nonetheless intriguing. However, this style doesn't bode well for when the scares begin. Apollo 18's cinematography makes it difficult to see what's actually happening. While in the one sense it captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of compact lunar modules and space suits and adds a sense that you're seeing everything from the astronaut's perspective, it is also frustrating. Further, judging by the implausible variety of camera angles one would think this was the most photographed mission in the history of space travel.

In all though, Apollo 18 takes an interesting premise but ultimately asks the wrong questions. These sort of historical-conspiratorial things are supposed to make you think about plausibility and possibility of things otherwise taken as truth. However, Apollo 18 rather raises more questions about logical fallacies, plot holes and technicalities rather than encourage any pondering on truth. You begin to ask things like why the earlier Apollo missions didn't suffer a similar fate and how carbon based life can survive in a vacuum? In search of answers I attempted to access their viral marketing site,, which has since 'mysteriously' been taken down. I say mysterious because I found the usual crackpots on Yahoo Answers all hollering that the CIA had shut it down while another guy brought up something about the video game Modern Warfare and zombies in an attempt to show how it was all interlinked. Indeed, there are actually some people out there who seemed to believe the marketing campaign and that this film is actually real footage. NASA even weighed in on the subject to stress that they had absolutely nothing to do with the film. But then of course they would say that, wouldn't they.

Apollo 18 is a reasonably unassuming effort of rising tension rather than anything deliberately shocking. However, because there's no punchline so to speak its effect as a space-horror is somewhat vacuous. All it eventually amounts to is a sustained suspense which ends only to beg more questions about technicalities than it does about intriguing coverups. Indeed, you start to wonder how some of this footage even made it back to Earth. Maybe there was an Apollo 19?