A film review by Craig J. Koban September 7, 2011


2011, PG-13, 88mins.

Lloyd Owen: Nate Walker / Warren Christie: Ben Anderson

Directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego / Written by Brian Miller

No.  You are not imagining things.  This film is called APOLLO 18 and, yes, the very last Apollo manned moon-landing mission was number 17 way back in 1972.  Several more missions were conceived in the late 60’s and early 70’s to go beyond Apollo 17, but NASA scrapped the plans due to budgetary considerations. 

Or…did they…? 

APOLLO 18’s premise is a very nifty one: it details how NASA kick-started a once cancelled Apollo 18 mission and launched it in December of 1974, but under the veil of massive secrecy for the purposes of national security.  Unfortunately, this mission was doomed and the vessels and men aboard never returned to Earth, which is really why there have been no other manned missions to our nearest satellite body.  The film itself is apparently presented as a loosely edited together documentary based on the 84 hours of astronaut shot footage while they were on their fatal mission that the government has been guarding from the public for years.  The clandestine group behind the doc footage has released it in hopes of letting the public know of a massive governmental conspiracy to cover up what happened to NASA’s astronauts, thus showing that “budgetary restraints” were not the real reason behind Americans never returning to the moon. 

Of course, all of this is a load of shit.  

APOLLO 18 – like the THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and, most recently, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY before it – is another in a very long list of faux-documentary/faux-found-footage horror films that aspires to tap into the sort of voyeuristic and reality-based shock and awe scares that have typified the genre for the last decade-plus.  Whereas other past examples have drummed up an escalating sense of dread and unease based in horror on a more Earthbound plane, APOLLO 18 at least does something fresh and novel by taking the concept into outer space while, at the same time, joyously re-imagining history and re-igniting conspiracy theorists’ own zealot-like search for the hidden truth.  As an example of cinematic fakery, APOLLO 18 looks as eerily real with its space travel and moon landing footage as what many watched decades ago on TV.  I guess that what the film lacks is genuine and sustained scares.  Instead of being terrifying, APOLLO 18 is merely a modest and half-hearted diversion that does not really linger with viewers. 

Here’s how this fake-umentary’s “story” unfolds.  In late 1974 the Department of Defense contacts the crew of the previously cancelled Apollo 18 mission and let’s them know that it is now officially a “go.”  There one little unsettling element, though: it’s been deemed as a top-secret mission that will never see the light of day in the public eye on TV (you’d think that the crew would perhaps ask more questions about the mysterious nature of the mission, but never mind).  The crew is comprised of Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen) and Captain Benjamin Anderson (Warren Christie) and what they are told is this: they will go to the moon to take rock samples, but their larger mission is to place detectors on the lunar surface to alert the U.S. of any potential nuclear attacks from those damn, dirty Ruskies. 

When the men do land on the moon everything seems to be as normal as it was for any of the previous missions: the men depart from their tiny capsules, hop up and down the lunar terrain, and dutifully perform their intended scientific mission.  However, when they astronauts begin to notice some real anomalies on the surface they begin to raise their eyebrows (weird signal interference on their satellites, odd noises emitting in the atmosphere, and, worst of all, their recently planted American flag has gone mysteriously missing).  The pair decides to do more sightseeing as result, during which they come across – to their shock – other human made footprints that are not from their own space suits.  Things really change for the worse when they discover an abandoned Soviet lander that is still functional, but covered in blood.  Walker decides to bravely trek down into a dark and dreary crater (one of the film’s better nail-biting sequences of suspense) where he finds a dead cosmonaut.  The men do relay their astonishing findings to mission control, but Houston tells them to ignore what they have discovered and intrepidly move onward.  It soon becomes apparent that there is something decidedly not man-made or moon-based with them that may prevent the astronauts from returning to Earth...period. 

Apollo 18 was produced by Timur Bekmambetov (who made the deliriously good WANTED) and was directed by Spanish-born Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego.  Filming occurred in Vancouver, B.C., which is never, ever hinted at in the final product.  APOLLO 18 is incontrovertibly a triumph of artificiality and production artifice.  Gallego uses rough, granular 16mm black and white (and occasional color) film stock, fractured editing, strange dissolves, and jerky compositions to evoke not only the film’s period, but also that of the found footage itself.  The film is purposely and meticulously orchestrated to the point where the events do indeed look credible.  One of the ironies of the original moon landing was the fact that many conspiracy nuts believed that they were faked.  One of the pleasures of APOLLO 18 is that, as far as fakery goes, there are rarely moments in it where you don’t buy into its presentation of the claustrophobic conditions of the lunar capsule, the gravity-defying movements of the astronauts, and the foreboding and desolate panoramic moon vistas.  It may have been shot in Canada, but it sure looks like it was on the moon. 

For as technically proficient and authentically atmospheric as the film is, APOLLO 18 really suffers when it comes to delivering scares on a regular basis.  Films like BLAIR WITCH and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY knew how to make people feel genuinely uneasy and frightened, whereas APOLLO 18 never seems to sustain equal levels of sinister vibes throughout.  The performances by the largely unknown cast members are thanklessly good, but there is very little in terms of actual character development here: they’re sort of faceless drones at service of the film’s technique.  Even more regrettable is how the film seems to capsize in its final 20-30 minutes or so that becomes – as the film divulges its alien secrets - perpetually sillier and more conventional as it hastily wraps itself up.  The last sections should have built to something momentous, but instead ends with an uneventful and unimaginative thud. 

Furthermore, there’s not much of an actually plot in APOLLO 18 either, when you think about it, which makes the already brief and gimmicky film at 90 minutes feel like 190 at times.  There is much to admire, though, in the film: its admirably realistic aesthetic and its willingness to take the mockumentary genre into new planes of mock-reality.  Ultimately,  APOLLO 18 is just a lukewarm chiller of a sci-fi horror flick that rarely – even as much as it wants to – makes us jump out of our seats in a frenzied panic.  My nephew perhaps best summarized his issues with the film by saying that “nothing really interesting happens in it.”  Succinctly spoken, for sure. 

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