Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Apollo 18 / *** (PG-13)

Benjamin Anderson: Warren Christie
Nathan Walker: Lloyd Owen
John Grey: Ryan Robbins

Dimension Films presents a film directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego. Written by Brian Miller. Running time: 88 min. Rated PG-13 (for some disturbing sequences and language).

I’m not a space program encyclopedia or anything, but I’ve always found movies about NASA and the Cold War space race to be fascinating. The Apollo program is wonderfully chronicled in the HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon” and in the movie “Apollo 13”. The Gemini program before that is the subject of the excellent movie “The Right Stuff”. There is even a fascinating documentary on the subject called “In the Shadow of the Moon” that features interviews with most of the program’s astronauts. According to all of these movies, the Apollo program ended with the Apollo 17 mission. Now comes “Apollo 18” to finally explain why the space program was abandoned. You might believe that it was a matter of money or a lack of enthusiasm once man had finally landed on the moon. “Apollo 18” imagines a more disturbing reason.

Now, let me ease your concern by telling you that the events depicted in this movie are completely fictitious. The filmmakers would like you to believe that this is all real. I doubt they really expect people to believe what they see here, but they’ve made this movie as if it were compiled from “found footage.” This has been a popular trend in the horror genre since “The Blair Witch Project” became a surprise hit more than a decade ago. The footage, created as if it were filmed in the early 70s by the astronauts who performed this fictitious Apollo 18 mission, looks incredibly authentic.

According to the officious title cards at the beginning of the movie, after the Apollo 17 mission NASA contacted the crew of the cancelled Apollo 18 mission and told them that the mission was back on. The mission was now under the direction of the Department of Defense and was top secret. The astronauts were not even allowed to tell their families that their moon mission was back on.

The opening scenes establish the false reality of the footage by showing interviews with the astronauts where they express their joy that they will be going into space. We see them prepping for the mission with test runs and equipment checks. We see launch footage, and the scenes of their trip to the moon are filled with the astronaut antics we’ve seen on space missions throughout the history of the NASA program.

When they reach the moon, however, questions start to arise. Perhaps the astronauts should question more. Why are they setting up motion-activated cameras if they’re the only ones on the moon? The camera details, however, work well to sell the authenticity. The astronauts make a big deal out of the fact that all the cameras are furnished by Westinghouse, which they would have done at the time. The documentation of their mission gives the filmmakers good reason to tell their entire story through found footage, which works better for this style than it has in other recent entries, like “Cloverfield”.

Some viewers may not have the patience for this high concept set up. So much of the movie is structured to sell the concept that people may not be aware that they’re watching a horror movie until that final half hour of the film. With a running time of 88 minutes, it’s really not that long of a wait, though. I was wondering just who this movie is supposed to appeal to. It’s so steeped in the NASA space program protocols that it might turn off horror fans. On the other hand, the eventual turn of events toward horror might not appeal to true space junkies.

It worked on me, however. When events on the moon began to grow stranger, I found myself looking to the corners of the screen for some clue as to just what might really be happening on our ever-present satellite. The horror begins so subtly here that it draws you in, slowly pulling you to the edge of your seat. The filmmakers do not make the mistake of trying to explain the phenomenon that we’re seeing with a grand plan or even a true resolution to the problem these astronauts were sent to the moon to discover.

I have one small criticism. How exactly did they “find” this footage, considering how everything ends up? Well, I suppose a sequel or two were already written into NASA history. Apollo 18 wasn’t the only “canceled” mission. Perhaps Apollo 19 and Apollo 20 were eventually flown in order to find that footage.

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