Based on overheard pre-show conversation, Hollywood has apparently left many younger-ish moviegoers with the impression that the ill-fated Apollo 13 was our last attempted mission to the moon. The Apollo program actually continued on for three more years and four more successful moon landings, missions which saw the first deployment of Lunar Rovers and the famous miles-long driving of at least two golf balls (Alan Shepard, Apollo 14). By 1973, however, with budget cuts, waning public interest in the space program, and increased attention being paid to the Skylab project, the planned Apollo missions 18 thru 20 were unceremoniously cancelled.
Or, so NASA and the US government would have us believe…! [cue dramatic music]
In Apollo 18 (the movie), a trio of astronauts (Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins) are recruited for Apollo 18 (the mission), which is so super-top-secret that they can’t even tell their families that they’re going. The supposed purpose of Apollo 18 (the mission) is to collect more rock samples and to set up cameras as part of some vague, early warning system for Soviet missile attacks; of course, this all almost immediately goes pear-shaped, as the astronauts run into strange noises, missing/moving rock samples, missing/broken equipment, unaccounted-for footprints, a secret Soviet Lunar lander and, most alarmingly, the desiccated corpse of a Soviet cosmonaut in a crater nearby. It doesn’t take terribly long before we are cued into the “real” horrors of the movie, which I won’t get into here because you’ve probably already seen the trailer, which gives away every damned thing.
In the absence of interesting characters or a plot, the production design and look of the film stock, lenses used, etc. take center stage. To director Gonzalo López-Gallego’s credit, he does get the look of the movie right, both in the period details (someone more knowledgeable about the moon or the Apollo space program will probably have fun picking this movie apart, pointing out all the things the movie gets wrong and right) as well as (and arguably more importantly) in the look of the footage itself: the grain, distortion, accidental overexposure and color washouts do for the most part look like actual film and video shot in and survived from the era, as opposed to looking like regular, modern footage run through a cheesy Mac “vintage film” app (hello, Planet Terror).
Although the footage appears vintage, Apollo 18 (the movie) also purposefully takes on the look of being heavily “edited” after-the-fact. Of course, no “found footage” film (with the possible exception of Cloverfield) claims to be nothing but unedited raw footage – surely some fictitious person, at one point or another, had to pare down hours of video from multiple sources into a single, cohesive 90-minute film – but here, the makers go full-Discovery Channel: spot-highlighting certain parts of the footage, at times zooming into and panning-and-scanning the video. The footage is even edited together cinematically – cutting back and forth between both sides of a radio conversation, for example. Add to this how self-consciously “acted” many of the key scenes are, and one wonders why López-Gallego didn’t just go ahead and make this a straight narrative feature, as the “found footage” aspects really add nothing to it (other than make for a presumably interesting viral marketing campaign).
Apollo 18 (the movie) has been on my radar for quite some time now, as I generally enjoy these “found footage”-type horror movies, I’m a fan of the space program, I was intrigued by this movie’s historical/period take on the sub-genre, and thought the claustrophobic space capsules and stark desolation of the Lunar surface might make for an interesting setting for a reality-based, hard sci-fi story. In the end, the movie certainly is a nice-looking artifact, and its makers obviously put quite a bit of effort in making it as “authentic” as possible; unfortunately, Apollo 18 (the movie) just isn’t very interesting (or scary) as either a story or a theory.