‘Apollo 18’: Little Variation on a Thoroughly Explored Theme

Because it’s 2012 and you just can’t get enough of found footage movies, Apollo 18 is now available on Blu-ray for your consumption. Here’s the twist: this time, the footage is from space. When Apollo 18 hit theaters it got demolished by critics, just eviscerated. While not quite as tragically awful as it was made out to be by some, Apollo18 is not good, not good at all.

Yet, the overall aesthetic of the film is solid. Director Gonzalo López-Gallego does a nice job creating the look and feel of footage left over from the ’70s. On the commentary track on the Blu-ray, he goes into great depth as to how he achieved the end result. He used a number of lenses, film speeds, and other tricks to make the film look aged and occasionally damaged. They even find excuses to keep many of the cameras static, or at least mounted, and thus avoid the nausea inducing jerkiness of genre relatives like Cloverfield.

The great attention to detail to make the film look authentic creates an interesting problem on Blu-ray’s hi-def format. The computer-generated special effects are so crisp and clean that there is huge contrast between the inserts and the backgrounds. Sure, Apollo 18 is a science fiction film, and you expect to set aside a certain amount of disbelief, but the disparity is so stark that it can be difficult to work around.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with Apollo 18 is the story. It’s simple, really. Apollo 17 was the last mission to the moon. After that the program was scrapped. There was, however, one more clandestine mission in 1974, the eponymous Apollo 18. A top-secret affair, this jaunt has remained highly classified, that is until now, when 84 hours of film from the mission surfaced on a website.

Three NASA astronauts, Ben Anderson (Warren Christie), John Grey (Ryan Robbins), and Nate Walker (Lloyd Owen), blast off into space, Anderson and Walker land on the moon while Grey orbits around them, and things take a turn for the sinister. As it turns out, the surface of the moon is not as tranquil and desolate we all thought, and as the Blu-ray box explains, “There’s a reason we’ve never gone back to the moon.” Indeed.

That sounds like a promising premise, but the issue is with how the plot unfolds. The story plays out exactly like every other found footage film ever produced. Substitute a space ship for a flimsy tent, and swap out the little alien critters for a witch that you don’t ever really see, and you’ve The Blair Witch Project. Characters hear spooky noises outside, there’s lots of running cameras and visual bouncing, and every once in a while there’s some slight movement at the edge of the frame that you’re not entirely sure you saw. Except for the times when the film takes the pains to highlight said movements with a little circle on screen.

Apollo 18 takes a scenario that is ready made for tension, and fails to create any. Isolated, thousands of miles from home, being stalked by some unseen, unknown force, in an environment that will kill you if you make one false step. There’s an inherent tension in this situation that you can’t deny, and still López-Gallego and company don’t do anything with it. It’s frustrating.

As the formulaic story of Apollo 18 runs it’s course, you get definite impression that there wasn’t a full movie’s worth of plot. The film is a bare bones proposition to begin with, a few characters in a few settings, and by the end the premise is stretched so thin that you can practically see through it. It relies on types and tropes that you’re sick of, and heavy-handed emotionality that feels like a cheap ploy, because it is. And you can only take so many shots of feet walking on the gray surface of the moon until you crack.

If you’re really hard up for a found footage fix, skip Apollo 18 and watch Trollhunter instead, it’s a much more entertaining, fresh take on the genre. Apollo 18 simply isn’t very interesting.

By far the most best of the bonus features on the Apollo 18 Blu-ray is already mentioned commentary track with López-Gallego and editor Patrick Lussier. This feature is more interesting than the actual film in many ways.

Some 20-minutes of deleted and extended scenes, 16 in all, were cut for obvious reasons. Many of these are Earth-bound moments that take place before the shuttle launch, and would only reiterate some light characterization and delay the astronauts from actually landing on the moon. A handful provide contrived explanations at the end. Good thing they wound up on the cutting room floor.

A quartet of alternate endings round out the Blu-ray extras. All four are variations on the same theme, the same result told in slightly different ways. They run the gamut from violent and bloody to quiet and subdued. It’s worth watching these because it gives you an idea of how filmmakers experiment in the editing process, and how much a few simple cuts can shape the finished product.

RATING 3 / 10