Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Apollo 18 (2011)

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace..."

- Apollo 18 (2011)

Nearly every movie critic in the world apparently hated Apollo 18 (2011), a found-footage horror movie about a doomed, 1974 NASA mission to the moon. 

The film's narrative involves two American astronauts, Anderson (Warren Christie) and Walker (Lloyd Owen), who -- over a span of days on a secret, D.O.D. supervised moon mission, -- come to grapple with malevolent alien critters on the lunar surface. 

As the situation grows more desperate, the alarmed duo seeks to rendezvous with their orbiting capsule, unaware that a larger conspiracy hangs over the mission...

The Boston Globe called Apollo 18 a "snooze," The Orlando Sentinel noted it "flat out does not work," New York Magazine called it "80 minutes of dead air," Variety said it was a "stunt," Village Voice used the film to suggest the subgenre of found footage horrors "should remain lost," and Entertainment Weekly opined that Apollo 18 had "no atmosphere." 

On and on, down the line, Apollo 18 has been totally reviled. 

Which means, to me anyway, it must be worthy of closer inspection...

Actually, I read a great many reviews of the film before I saw Apollo 18 and tallied some of the criticism ahead of time.  For instance, one critic argued that the astronauts featured in the film don't appear to bounce around the moon, but walk normally, as they would on Earth. In our gravity. 

Patently not true. 

You can clearly see the astronauts bouncing right along there on the lunar surface, as if out of an episode of Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977). 

Another critic diminished the film on the basis that the surviving crew members attempt to mate a Russian lunar lander and American space capsule in space, when "everybody knows" (!) their systems wouldn't be compatible for such a rendezvous. 

Again, this description is patently untrue in terms of the specifics the movie actually establishes.  In the film, the astronauts -- attempting to meet up -- plan to get close enough in space so that the astronaut in the CCCP lander can "space walk" to the American capsule from the Russian lander.  A ship-to-ship link-up is explicitly dismissed on-screen as impossible.

Another outraged apparent science "expert" argued that the film doesn't feature a time-lapse between the men on the moon and mission control on Earth during radio transmissions. 

I'm certain this so-called science expert also complained in Star Wars when there were sounds and explosions reverberating in space, right? 

And besides, this argument doesn't bear much scrutiny given the details of how Apollo 18 is intentionally presented.  The film we are witnessing here consists of "uploaded" footage from a truth-seeking group called "lunar truth."  Said footage (hours of it; days of it...) has been heavily edited by this group (hence the film's many jump cuts), and some compositions even showcase white spotlights or irises around background alien movement; revealing how the footage has been augmented by editors to make certain some visual aspects are "easier" to parse. 

In other words, the footage we are seeing (as the film) has been intentionally organized and assembled, and we are seeing that assembly.  Thus, a time-lapse could have been edited out for viewing ease.

Given this fact, and the exigencies of dramatic license in movie-making, is it really such a stretch to accept an abbreviation of the Earth/moon time lapse in terms of radio?  Or is this "mistake," as the critic states, a disqualifying factor in terms of overall quality?

One after the other, an attentive viewer can absolutely demolish a great many of the absurd complaints hurled at Apollo 18, if he or she just actually, you know, watches and listens to what happens on screen. 

Now, I'm not declaring this movie is an unheralded masterpiece.  Rather, I merely assert that this film is in no way, shape, or form the dreadful enterprise so many reviewers enthusiastically described.  And, it's certainly an intriguing twist on the now-popular found-footage formula; one much more original, interesting, and intelligent, for instance, than the umpteen Paranormal Activity movies. 

In fact, Apollo 18 is a moderately effective, eminently respectable horror film and certainly worthy of your time, if only for one viewing.  You may leave a screening feeling it doesn't quite come off, but you may also be pleased that you've witnessed, essentially, an ambitious failure.

And indeed, Apollo 18 is a remarkably ambitious effort in terms of the burgeoning found footage genre.  Consider that the found footage-type film (Blair Witch Project, [REC], The Last Exorcism] is frequently a low-budget exercise primarily about transforming weaknesses (such as lack of budget and no big name actors) into a kind of expressionistic, experiential strength.  Cloverfield (2008) stands as a notable exception to this trend in terms of scope and budget. 

Now, I don't know the budget for Apollo 18, but I can readily assert, after watching it, that tremendous attention has been paid to making certain that the film's sets and wardrobes are appropriate and correct to the 1970s time period.   The film grain is right too.  The movie looks like an actual vintage space program mission.  So if you enjoy that era of the American space program, you'll likely find plenty of retro (low) tech wonders to enjoy here, from the Lunar Lander interior to the Rover mock-up.  The Russian LK capsule also really looks like it could have been a product of that era.

Even more dramatically, the creation of the moon's environment is visually stunning.  I can't begin to imagine how this vast, desolate landscape was recreated so ably, so authentically on a low budget, but the makers of Apollo 18 didn't just easily pinch something off here (as is the case with some found footage films).  Instead writer Brian Miller and director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego  made a serious period-piece...on another fucking planet (or rather, natural satellite, I guess).  How many other found-footage films go so far to build a complete context and world around their horror milieu? 

Not many.

In terms of the found footage approach, Apollo 18 by-and-large sticks to the rules it sets up.  There's one scene wherein an exterior camera runs out of film during the middle of a scene, and suddenly we're in another scene all-together, in an entirely different conversation.   No explanations, no exposition.  It's a good touch that feels realistic.

Many moments in the film are also distorted by static and other picture disruptions.  In fact, some of the visual disturbances take away from the viewer's ability to follow the narrative and identify fully with the characters.   There's indeed something a little distancing here.  But again, that's the price for a found-footage film in these circumstances.  Apollo 18 must seem like a real moon mission, and truthfully, it accomplishes that feat.

I suppose the most legitimate question about the film is: how did this footage get back to Earth?  The only reasonable answer comes in the form of paranoia and conspiracy.  On several occasions, Mission Control on Earth claims it knows exactly what's happening on the moon; meaning that Earth is somehow (mysteriously) receiving visual transmissions from the astronauts.   Again, I don't necessarily see this omission as something that destroys the entire film, but rather a mystery.

Look, I can complain about the dopey, out-of-proportion critical response to this movie till the cows come home, but in the final analysis, the film must stand on its own as a work of art.  And on its own terms, I would argue Apollo 18 is at least moderately interesting in terms of narrative, highly dynamic in terms of visuals, and indeed quite suspenseful.  The film works hard at a slow, steady-build towards terror, and features two absolutely nerve-jangling jump scares.  I'm an old-hand at anticipating this kind of thing, and yet I popped up from my seat at two separate instances. 

The "dead air" that so many critics complained of -- the authentic, work-a-day approach to the space program -- is actually the very thing that makes these jump scares so blazingly effective.  The jolts arrive in contrast to the almost boring minute-to-minute operation of the space capsule.  We're not expecting such moments, and so when they arrive...we're walloped.  Again, I feel this approach is, at minimum, respectable.  The film attempts to ape the work-a-day feel of the real Apollo missions, and then uses that grounding in a reality we all recognize to leap off into breathtaking, heart-pounding horror.

The story details of Apollo 18 certainly owe something to an old Outer Limits episode, "The Invisible Enemy," about another space mission that unexpectedly finds hostile alien life on a seemingly deserted world.  In both cases, the monsters actually hide in plain sight, and boast a kind of sinister brand of intelligence.  What differentiates Apollo 18, again, is the visually-dynamic presentation of the setting, the horrifying nature of the alien threat, and the astronaut's bewildered response to it. 

But Apollo 18 thrives most powerfully on the fact that the two astronauts on the surface really have no options for long-term survival.  They are alone, outnumbered, abandoned, running low on air, and increasingly desperate.  There's a moment inside a deep crater -- lit only by sporadically flashing lights -- that gets, most powerfully, at this atmosphere of total vulnerability. 

The found-footage genre reaches its apex of success, in my opinion, when it transports you so successfully into another life or world that you start to get a little panicky yourself.  Like you are actually there....and unsafe.   I felt that way in The Blair Witch Project (1999), as the kid filmmakers neared the weird, isolated house in the middle of the forest, and I felt it here too, when one astronaut was alone, trying to help his friend at the lip of a crater, and on the very cusp of being the last human being alive on the Moon...with no possibility of help or escape.  

Now, I don't know if the critics who hated this movie possess a deficit of imagination or I possess a surfeit of it, but I found this element of the film very effective; a brand of throat-tightening terror that is hard to shake off or invalidate.  Imagine being alone out there...separated from...everything.  In many ways, Apollo 18's central scenario is the ultimate horror crucible, the ultimate human nightmare.  The movie has a great high-concept, and a great, dynamic visualization of it.  In a few shots, we see Earth hanging in the black sky, thousands of miles away and tiny, and this composition is almost unimaginable in terms of the loneliness it projects.

Apollo 18 asks you to live, essentially, in an extended moment of fear and total isolation, and there's a touching moment during which one astronaut -- knowing he shall never see home again -- plays a tape recording of his wife and son over and over again; reaching out for something, anything human and comforting. Again, critics want to tell you the characters in the film are indistinguishible and you never care about them.  Watch and experience this scene of human longing and sepration and then see if you think that claim is entirely fair.

I should also add, perhaps that Apollo 18 exists within in the milieu of "conspiracy" films about the space program (think: Capricorn One [1978]).  Here, Watergate gets an explicit mention too.  We live in a similar age of suspicion today, obsessed on Trutherism, Birtherism and the like.  Today's widespread fear of big, out of control, arrogant government, is also reflected, to some extent in Apollo 18's depiction of patriotic Americans left callously to die on the moon.  Is this the best we can do for our national heroes?  For those who dare to expand the frontiers of human knowledge? Are we failing our best men and women?

So Apollo 18 speaks to the Zeitgeist of the day, is authentically scary at points, and is visually unlike any found-footage film ever made.  Those are the strengths it brings to the table.   The weaknesses, in my opinion, stem from the fact that you know too early where the film is headed (and how it will end), and that some moments of the deliberate space program "vibe" drag on too long (a claim which one might also legitimately make, by the way, of Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey).

So, a good attempt that falls a little short, or a total, horrible flame out?  I'd vote for the former. In my opinion, it's too bad so many folks believe Apollo 18 should have been scrubbed before lift-off, when, in some respects, it clearly points out a new trajectory for found footage films; one that may help the subgenre expand and grow beyond the current reach and scope of so many...paranormal activities. 

Nighttime nurseries can only be explored so many times before ennui sets in, but the dimensions of space are, of course, limitless.


  1. Thanks for this JKM! I'd been planning to watch the movie anyway because I love the concept but all the venom it's attracted has made me a bit shy about pulling the trigger on the DVD player; it can be really frustrating when one's limited viewing time is wasted by a really bad movie that "looks good" (I'm looking at you, HATCHET) but now I'm back to looking forward to it, with reasonable expectations.

  2. Hi DLR:

    Exceent comments. "Reasonable expectations" is surely the key.

    The film is visually fascinating, and in terms of milieu Apollo 18 certainly expands the limits of the increasingly tiresome found-footage subgenre.

    On the other hand, the film isn't perfect by any means. Some of the dedication to space program realities of the 1970s holds the film at a distance from the characters and from the audience. And, you always have a sense of where the film is going.

    I've also read of viewers who were upset/unimpressed with the alien monsters, but of course, on the moon you have very little in terms of available options, and camouflage. You have to give the movie a little bit of a leash, work with it, and then enjoy where it ambitiously decides to go.

    Apollo 18 is a worthwhile rental, and not at all the unmitigated disaster so many reviewers claimed. Frankly, I don't get all the hate (and more than that, the irrational hate; girded with untruths about what actually occurs in the text of the film). It's weird that this movie has become the target for so much vitriol.


  3. WOW! What an outstanding critique, John!

    I rather enjoyed this little film. It was quite a nice surprise considering the backlash. I agree completely that the level of detail was admirable, and I thought it was effectively unnerving for the most part.

    I appreciate that you took the time to counter the negative responses with carefully thought arguments and evidence to back it up. Too many critics and regular movie goers are quick to pass judgement before they even enter the theater. This seems especially true of the "found footage" genre.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I'm with you, buddy. I enjoyed Apollo 18 too. The movie was ambitious, and succeeded (at least with me) in generating anxiety.

    I don't usually go into so much depth about other critical reviews of a film when I write a review, but I can't stand to see mindless and technically-incorrect conventional wisdom dominate discussion of what amounts to a fun, unique horror movie. Apollo 18 -- failures and all -- deserves a wider audience. I hope this review contributes to that becoming a reality, at least a little.

    Thanks for the comment,

  5. Robert Earl Day5:18 PM

    "… the surviving crew members attempt to mate a Russian lunar lander and American space capsule in space, when "everybody knows" (!) their systems wouldn't be compatible for such a rendezvous."

    Maybe this is the origin of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project?

  6. SteveW2:00 AM

    Thanks for this review--made me check out a good little movie I might otherwise have skipped. I agree on all counts, and in fact I liked it even a bit more than you did. Definitely reminded me of those "X-Files" eps where Mulder and Scully journeyed to some remote location and encountered a weird new species (Ice, Darkness Falls, Firewalker). All the period detail and space program realism worked brilliantly for me--you're right to highlight the filmmaking polish on a small budget. The Soviet lunar lander was a small triumph of design, with a cool Jules-Vernish look to contrast with the American lander. Like you, I can't account for the reviews. It's probably my favorite of the "found footage" movies (yes, I liked it more than "Cloverfield" or "Blair Witch").

  7. Hi SteveW,

    I'm so happy this review led you to see the film, and furthermore that you enjoyed it. I like your comparison to The X-Files (and the episodes "Ice," "Darkness Falls" and "Firewalker.") You're right, Apollo 18 is definitely of a piece with those.

    I also thought the Soviet lunar lander was pretty fantastic in design (interior and exterior) and I loved the attention to detail in terms of the 1970s space tech.

    I really, really can't figure out why the critics hated this movie with such a passion. I thought it was a good found footage horror movie, but I still think Blair Witch is tops! :)


  8. I truly am a fan of found footage, from 'Cannibal Holocaust' to 'BWP' to the PA franchise. I did like this film and thought the production values were top notch. I think each and every one of these films is guaranteed to at least give you 2 or 3 jump scares and that is 2 or 3 more than you can say for a 'Halloween' remake. I thought the isolation was much more intense than BWP, at least you were on the Earth!

  9. woodchuckgod8:56 AM

    I've only been experimenting with the 'Found Footage' genre this past year, having eschewed it entirely previously (as I've mentioned) - I've taken in probably close to a half dozen examples now. Most recently, I watched (the excellent) Trollhunter, the (very good) The Bay, and just last night I finished watching Apollo 18.

    I have to say plainly - I really enjoyed this one. I'd hold short of saying I loved it, but it was wholly effective for me.

    When a found footage doesn't work for me, my first and ever-present objection is in how in the dickens did a camera get into this (swamp, haunted building, burning car, victim's stomach, batch of baklava, etc.) and/or why in the dickens is this bozo filming his buddies getting eaten/killed/falling off a cliff, what have you, instead of helping them.

    The nature of the space mission (specifically and generally) solved that nicely for me, so with disbelief duly suspended I was able to enjoy this a great deal. Even knowing where the story was going from a win/lose standpoint, the film was also notable to me for giving me my first true found footage 'Oh -SHIT!-' moment. (Toward the end - Newly in orbit - gravity goes away - 'nuff said there)

    Maybe that means I'm scare jaded - I don't know. But that was awesome. And the fact that the astronaut's eyes bugged out as he realized his problem - pretty much at exactly the same time mine did - just made it even better.

    I think the critics must have been suffering from oxygen depriviation on this one.

  10. One of the beter found footage movies, I enjoyed watching it.


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