APOLLO 18 is one of those films that I respect more than I like.
I love not only the idea but the approach. This is smart, low-budget film making. With a main cast of just two actors, a secondary actor, and then a bunch of people who could have filmed their parts in an afternoon, APOLLO 18 puts the emphasis on the script and just two performances, which allows them to spend the money they do have (reportedly, just $5 million) to create as realistic a look as possible.
The good news is that this strategy works. All of the costumes and all of the spacecraft and moon sets look really good. When you’re dealing with NASA, people know what all of this gear is supposed to look like, so you’ve got to be able to produce either a good facsimile or give us a reason why it looks different. I’m sure NASA experts (NASA-niks? NASA-nauts?) could pick out plenty of things that don’t look right, but for me, everything appears authentic enough that I’m not drawn out of the narrative by how anything looks or acts (though the film wisely avoids doing zero G stuff as much as possible).
The visual look of the film is really nice, too. APOLLO 18 is yet another found footage film, but it almost might as well have just been filmed straight. Other than a few “glitches” in footage, this is pretty close to a straight film. APOLLO 18 uses the found footage angle to help create mystery and add tension, but it does this with only moderate success. Honestly, given that the film had a 2011 release, APOLLO 18 being a found footage film seems like a calculation to get a few more teenagers into the theater than it seems like a reason to enhance the story.
APOLLO 18 is an alt-history story; in reality, the Apollo 18 mission was cancelled, and the Apollo 17 mission was the last time humans have set foot on the moon. In the film, the mission is likewise cancelled, but then rebooted by the Department of Defense for a top secret mission that no one by essentials know about, and even less (including the astronauts) know the true details for its existence.
Ben Anderson (Warren Christie), Nate Walker (Lloyd Owen), and John Grey (Ryan Robbins) are the astronauts sent to the moon to ostensibly collect rocks. They wonder why NASA needs more rocks when they’ve already got so many, but it’s not like they’re going to pass up a trip to the moon. They get into lunar orbit and Anderson and Walker head to the surface while Grey remains in the command module. The first day things go fine, but on the second day things start to get wonky: a sample mysteriously ends up on the floor and then they see footprints in the lunar soil. Tracking them down, they find a Russian lunar module hanging out with signs of a violent struggle and missing Cosmonauts. One of the Americans heads down into a dark crater, where he finds the corpses of one of the missing Cosmonauts.
It’s all rather well told and executed. In the crater, the only light comes from a flash, so there’s a nice bit of horror as we get only glimpses of what will clearly end up being a Bad Scene.
The problem with all of this is that it takes too darn long to get to the Russian module, and then after this sequence (which is, by far, the best sequence in the film), it’s all about Walker growing paranoid. The horror is largely of a, “Hey, look out the window! I saw something!” variety as Walker goes from paranoid to self-destructive and while it’s not poorly executed, it’s not overly engaging, either. I like the story, I like the performances, I like the brief bits of CGI (spiders in the astronaut helmet is pretty cool), but the film just never quite works for me as well as I’d like.
APOLLO 18 was released almost two full years before Europa Report, but I saw Europa first, and it is, in all honestly, a better movie.
I don’t want to slag APOLLO 18 too hard, though. Like I mentioned, I respect the hell out of it, and I like it for what it is, but I don’t love it. I wish the story was a bit more inventive. Coming across the Russian spacecraft is pretty darn cool, as is the brief scene where one of the astronauts puts a picture of his wife and son on the surface of the moon so they could be there with him; the alien menace pretending to be rocks less so, and the well-executed, obvious play is where, unfortunately, APOLLO 18 spends too much of its time.