By Steven Harrison Gibbs.
The poster for this latest cash grab in the ever-lucrative wave of ‘found footage’ horror cinema intrigued me when I saw it in passing at a local theater earlier this year, its tagline stating ‘There’s a reason we’ve never gone back to the moon,’ and underneath these words two footprints – one human, one something else. Being a huge fan of the subgenre, my curiosity turned to eagerness when a quick internet search yielded the knowledge that this film would be among its latest entries. When the release date was pushed back for the first time from March 4th, 2011 to April 22nd, I thought nothing of it. However, after a second delay to July 8th and then another all the way to January 13, 2012 occurred, followed by murmurs of rewrites and reshoots, I began to significantly lower my expectations. After so many changes in release had delayed the film almost a year, it was hard to be surprised when it was pushed forward to August 26th, 2011 and then back a week to September 2nd (most likely to avoid competition with Guillermo del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which opened on the former date).
Aside from the juggling of release dates for Apollo 18, a viral marketing campaign that sprang up in December of 2010 (via the official site for the film) had been garnering attention as well. Serving as a backdrop for the plot of the film, (faux) redacted documents were unveiled periodically, with the first stating that Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 had been moved from ‘cancellation’ to ‘postponement.’ This brings us to the film itself, which begins with white text over a black background explaining that what follows is a compilation of footage from the Apollo 18 mission that was purportedly launched in December of 1974 as a top secret project funded by the Department of Defense. The viewer is introduced to the trio who will carry out the Apollo 18 mission – Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), Lieutenant Colonel John Grey (Ryan Robbins) and Captain Benjamin Anderson (Warren Christie) – via a brief series of clips, ranging from home video of a barbeque among their families to interviews with each astronaut prior to the mission. Thankfully, the film moves at a fairly quick pace and before too long Walker and Anderson touch down on the moon in their Lunar Lander, ‘Liberty,’ while Grey remains in orbit aboard the Service Module, ‘Freedom.’ Their mission is a simple one: they are to place devices on the surface of the moon which will enable the United States to detect any ICBM attacks from the USSR.
Simplicity is quickly cast aside, however, when bizarre things begin to happen. First, Anderson finds a moon rock on the floor inside ‘Liberty’ after he was certain he had secured all collected samples. Then, a trail of footprints is discovered near the Lander that leads them first to an abandoned Soviet LK Lander with a blood-stained interior, and then to a dark crater where the body of a Soviet cosmonaut is found. Questions are asked, of course, but the astronauts are simply told to continue their mission, which is already nearing its end. Finally, the next day, as the astronauts prepare to leave, what seems to be a violent quake rattles ‘Liberty,’ preventing them from taking off; examination of the damage leads to the discovery of footprints that are certainly not human. All of these unexpected occurrences are more than enough to cause both Walker and Anderson to question the true purpose of their mission, as it becomes increasingly obvious that there is something on the moon that they have not been told about. Throughout the remainder of the film, the astronauts simultaneously struggle to find a way off the moon before their dwindling supply of oxygen is exhausted and to garner answers from the Department of Defense.
It is unfortunate that with this mildly intriguing premise fueling it, Apollo 18 is largely void of any real suspense or sense of dread – a quality that films of this kind must have in order to succeed. Instead, what subtle tension is built throughout the brief 86-minute runtime remains just that, and nothing more. The tragic aspect of this is that the ingredients for an effective, chilling thriller are present in abundance, but instead of being mixed together to create something savory, they are left sitting idly on the shelf. The moon setting and extraterrestrial life are largely untapped properties when it comes to ‘found footage’ films; the performances are frank and believable; Patrick Lussier’s efficient and effective editing keeps a brisk pace and prevents the film from ever dragging; and the “Why are they still filming?” quandary that plagues many of these films is made irrelevant due to an intricate set-up involving multiple cameras – the vast majority of which are not handheld. It is all there in spades, but a less-than-halfhearted effort to construct and maintain an appropriate atmosphere prevents the film from elevating above utter mediocrity. Instead of becoming gradually unsettling, only the flattest of chords is plucked in a lethargic melody that becomes as tiring as it is inadequate by the time the credits roll. Still, enthusiasts of ‘found footage’ films may find that Apollo 18 holds just enough intrigue to warrant a leisure viewing, perhaps in the form of a rental when it is available on home video (or for streaming via Netflix or a similar service), as it does not inspire a unique theatrical experience akin to that of the Paranormal Activity films. However, if you are among those who grow tired of and/or have remained unimpressed with the subgenre, Apollo 18 is unlikely to provoke a change in opinion.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director Gonzalo López-Gallego
Screenplay Brian Miller
Producers Timur Bekmambetov, Ron Schmidt
Director of Photography José David Montero
Editor Patrick Lussier
With Warren Christie (Captain Benjamin Anderson), Lloyd Owen (Commander Nathan Walker), and Ryan Robbins (Lieutenant Colonel John Gray)
[Official Site] http://apollo18movie.net/
[A glimpse of the viral marketing campaign] http://www.dreadcentral.com/news/41434/new-apollo-18-viral-examines-why-we-havent-been-back-moon