In Home Viewings: "Apollo 18"

In 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 made the last manned moon landing. Shortly after their return to earth, NASA cancelled the flights of Apollo 18, 19, and 20, respectively, and instead turned focus towards the creation of the space shuttle. At least, that’s what the government wants you to think. (Cue the ominous “conspiracy” music.)The found footage within Apollo 18 would have you believe that the Apollo 17 mission was just the tip of the iceberg. With John (Ryan Robbins) orbiting above the moon, Nate (Lloyd Owen) and Ben (Warren Christie) descend upon the surface for a secret mission, carrying a payload provided by the Department of Defense. Their two day mission takes a strange turn, however, when they find a Soviet landing craft and the body of a cosmonaut not far from their own landing spot. Soon weird things begin to happen and before long the two astronauts find themselves under attack from a mysterious presence that always seems to evade eyesight. When Nate is injured and begins to show signs of infection, it is left to Ben to try to get the pair back to their orbiting shuttle before it’s too late.

The found footage genre, which has become far too prominent in recent years, presents a challenge for me. As a concept, I think it’s rather intriguing. There are things that you can do with a found footage narrative that you can’t do with the standard storytelling and when done right, it can create an atmosphere that feels more realistic than it would be otherwise. I think it’s that presencethat brings me back to found footage flicks. The problem is it’s almost never done right. In the same way that 3D has been bastardized by bad filmmakers with bad films that use the technology for evil rather than good, found footage is mostly used as a crutch for lazy, uninspired storytelling. It is used, essentially, as a gimmick more often than not rather than a tool for crafting a quality film.

Apollo 18 is the personification of that last paragraph. As a concept, it is thoroughly intriguing to me. It asks the question, “Why haven’t we been back to the moon?” and pretty soon I found myself wondering the same thing. I’m anything but a conspiracy theorist but still, the base of the film worked for me. I also think the decision to have almost the entire film take place with only two characters was a brave choice even if it didn’t come together seamlessly. But beyond the concept, Apollo 18 falls flat on its face, a perfect illustration of what bothers me most about this genre. Director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego attempts to build suspense, even terror, throughout but he never manages to pull it off. Very little happens throughout the film’s runtime and what does happen is completely swallowed up by the boredom that the slow pace inspires. And instead of trying to do anything unique or fresh, instead Apollo 18 represents a check list of generic gags and gimmicks that plague the average found footage film.

On top of all this, Apollo 18 isn’t frightening in the least. I tire of film critics attacking suspense films and thrillers for not effectively scaring them out of their seats. But a film billed as a sci-fi horror flick needs to pack at least a bit of a punch and this film is decidedly punchless. Weak dialogue and plot holes can be overlooked (see: The Blair Witch Project) if your film is bringing legitimate scares but every time Apollo 18 tries to ramp up the scare factor, I found myself yawning and wondering how much more I had to sit through. It is lazy, half-hearted filmmaking that could have done much more with the concept it had to work with.