Apollo 18: A Guest Movie Review

Apollo 18

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by Martin L. Shoemaker

Oh.

My.

Word.

Go see this film.

Go see this film.

Go see this film, go see this film, go see this film.

Well, maybe not. There might be reasons why you shouldn’t go see “Apollo 18”.

If you only like science fiction films with an explosion roughly every 2.3 minutes and enough CGI space battles to blow up a star, don’t go see “Apollo 18”.

If you only like horror films with an unkillable, chainsaw-wielding psycho in a hockey mask or a never-ending army of zombies, don’t go see “Apollo 18”.

If you believe “movie” means “move” and you get bored if there’s not a fight or a car chase every other scene, don’t go see “Apollo 18”.

But if you enjoy science fiction with subdued but detailed special effects with the verisimilitude of “2001” or Duncan Jones’s “Moon”… If you enjoy suspenseful horror classics like “The Birds” or the original versions of “The Haunting” or “The Legend of Hell House”, where what you don’t see is even scarier than what you do… If you enjoy a film with pacing, where slow scenes develop tension until a sudden menace jolts you out of your seat…

Then go see “Apollo 18”, a science fiction horror film with pacing and mood and just the right amount of shocks at just the right moments. Go see “Apollo 18”, go see “Apollo 18”, go see “Apollo 18”!

The previews for this film had me torn. On the one hand, advance news told me it was a “found footage” movie, pretending that this was real NASA footage. I expected that to disappoint me, big time. I told friends flatly that I expected “The Blair Witch Project” meets “Aliens” on the Moon. The fact that the release was delayed until effectively the end of summer worried me further. That’s usually an indicator that the studio lacks confidence in the film.

On the other hand, that fake NASA footage in the trailers was PERFECT. I’m a huge fan of the Apollo program (as you might guess from my story, “The Night We Flushed the Old Town”, in Therefore I Am). I’ve pored over NASA footage and photos. And those trailers looked perfect for early 1970s NASA film and video. And I’m such an Apollo fan, I had no choice: fully expecting to be horribly disappointed, I still had to go see this film.

And I spent the first third of the film in awe. Director Gonzalo López-Gallego crafted a “documentary” that perfectly captured an Apollo Moon launch. If there were technical gaffes, I couldn’t catch them (except for one discussed below). In fact, there WERE technical glitches in the advertising: the ads spoke of the astronauts going to “the dark side of the Moon”, and there ain’t no such thing. (Sorry, Pink Floyd fans!) There’s a near side, and a far side; and both sides get half a month of light, and half a month of darkness. But the idea that one side of the Moon is always dark is absolutely wrong. It’s a mistake no one at NASA would make; and when I saw it in the ads, it made me nervous about the film. But writer Cory Goodman and screenwriter Brian Miller never made that mistake. Some ad writer did, and should henceforth be restricted to writing ads for Adam Sandler films. This film is too far above his head (pun unintentional).

I spent the second third of the film with a growing sense of dread. Something was wrong on the Moon, but it wasn’t clear what. Often we would see glimpses of things the astronauts missed, and I wanted to scream at them to look around!

And I spent the final third of the film literally on the edge of my seat – when I wasn’t jumping out of it. More than once I felt the whole row of theater seats shake as someone jumped.

The plot is fairly predictable, especially if you’ve seen the trailers or read reviews. In a way, that in itself speaks to how good this film is, because the one thing I normally hate in a film is predictability; but even though I could tell well in advance how “Apollo 18” would end, I was engrossed in seeing how it got to that ending.

Except for one thing: I DIDN’T predict the ending. I predicted most of it, as could almost anyone who has seen a good horror film; but the last three minutes or so… Wow! I never saw that coming, even though it was clearly foreshadowed almost from the start of the film.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the plot. After NASA canceled Apollo missions 18-20, the Department of Defense secretly reactivated Apollo 18 as a classified mission to deploy missile warning radar units on the Lunar south pole. (Here is the one technical glitch, and you have to be a real rocket geek to notice it: it would take a LOT of energy for an Apollo mission to land on the Lunar south pole, probably more energy than a Lunar Module could muster. For reasons of orbital mechanics, it’s easier to take off and land near the equator; and the farther you get from the equator, the harder it gets. But in Hollywood, it’s a minor miracle if they produce a movie without whooshing sounds as the ships pass through space, so I think they can be forgiven a small matter of orbital mechanics.) Commander Nate Walker (Lloyd Owen) and Lunar Module Pilot Ben Anderson (Warren Christie) descend to the Moon in the Lunar Module, while Command Module Pilot John Grey (Ryan Robbins) waits for them in the Command Module (which many clueless reviewers called a “shuttle” – I’ll bet they thought it was an actual space shuttle!).  Once the astronauts land, they start experiencing minor but annoying glitches in the cameras and their radios. Unexplained things start happening. Slowly they begin to learn that they’re not alone; and so they investigate the mystery. And slowly they come to suspect that the Department of Defense is lying to them, and they’re being used. As they get closer and closer to the secret, the danger mounts higher and higher. There’s a threat out there, hiding in darkness, especially in the permanent darkness found in some craters at the south pole. Can they solve the mystery? Can they survive? You can probably guess the answers, but I’m not going to spoil them here.

Director López-Gallego, cinematographer José David Montero, and film editor Patrick Lussier have done a masterful job of filming. I’ve already commented how well they captured the look of NASA archival footage; but they also did a great job with lighting and angle to build suspense. That’s an even more impressive accomplishment when you consider that most of the cameras for this “found footage” were in fixed locations and angles, so they had to arrange the ominous events and the sudden shocks so that they occurred where the cameras could capture them. A classic horror film trope is unreliable lighting: every time you almost see something, the light fades or changes, and you lose sight of the threat. They use that trope to great effect in this film, including one of those seat-shaking scenes where I actually heard people scream in the theater. Good, suspenseful horror films are moody, they have atmosphere. And sure enough, this film has plenty of atmosphere (even if the Moon doesn’t!).

For López-Gallego and Montero, this is their first English-language production (though the actors have long lists of American TV and film credits). I hope they do more. I’ll be watching for their names as avidly as I watch for Duncan Jones.

The film does have one HUGE gaping logic hole; but I can’t explain it without spoiling the ending of the film. I enjoyed the film sooooooo much, I’ll forgive them that logic hole. (But if they ever make a sequel, they’d darn well better fill in that hole!)

Go see this film, go see this film, go see this film.

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