Friday, August 28, 2015

The Reason We've Never Gone Back to the Moon...

Since its release in 2011, I've read very little positive about Apollo 18, another found-footage science fiction/horror thriller à la The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, et. al., but its premise struck me as appealing enough, so I figured I'd eventually give it a look. This evening, eventually came to be, and, while the film is no masterpiece, I am inclined to be a little kinder to it than most reviewers. If the title isn't enough to give it away, it's about an "undocumented" Apollo moon mission following the last official moon shot (Apollo 17 in 1972). The movie is cobbled together from videos ostensibly shot by the crew on its ill-fated mission, and while I tend to look down my nose (way the hell down my nose, as a matter of fact) at endless, dizzying shaky-cam footage, there are enough steady shots and suggestive, weird images to make the visual experience generally palatable.

There be spoilers ahead.

Three astronauts — Mission Commander Nate Walker (Lloyd Owen), Captain Ben Anderson (Warren Christie), and Lieutenant Colonel John Grey (Ryan Robbins) — are sent to the moon on a top-secret mission to place DEW (Distant Early Warning) devices on the lunar surface to detect possible attacks from space by the Soviet Union. Once the Apollo spacecraft, named Freedom, achieves lunar orbit, astronauts Walker and Anderson descend to the surface in the Lunar Excursion Module Liberty, while astronaut Grey remains in orbit aboard the command module. Walker and Anderson venture outside their spacecraft, plant the American flag, place their sensors, and collect some lunar rock samples. During their subsequent communications with Earth, they hear strange sounds over the radio, which they believe to be interference from the transmitters they have placed. Then they find one of their rock samples, which had been stowed away, on the floor of the cabin. On their next outing, in their lunar rover, Walker and Anderson discover human footprints — which lead them to the remains of cosmonaut and a Russian lunar lander. They report their discovery to Mission Control, which orders them to continue their mission as planned.

The next day, the astronauts wake to find their flag missing. Realizing something is terribly wrong, they begin preparation to take off and return to space to rendezvous with the Freedom, but something violently assaults the landing craft and damages it so they can't take off. Outside, they discover the tracks of some non-human entity — and Walker suffers an attack by a spider-like creature inside his spacesuit. Anderson rescues him, but Walker is now infected by an unknown organism that spreads through his system, making him paranoid and irrational. In a violent rage, he smashes the onboard oxygen system. Hoping to find an oxygen supply aboard the Russian lander, they set out in the rover, but Walker again becomes violent and wrecks the vehicle. Anderson realizes the arthropod-like aliens camouflage themselves as rocks, and he is surrounded by them. He manages to reach the Russian lander, but Walker again attacks and attempts to smash the lander's window with a hammer. This time, though, the alien creatures swarm over him and kill him, allowing Anderson to take off and go into orbit.

Unfortuately, as he soon discovers, the lander is filled with lunar rocks....

Before the launch: astronauts Anderson (Warren Christie), Grey (Ryan Robbins), and Walker (Lloyd Owen)
Lunar rover and astronaut on the surface of the moon
The film necessarily focuses on the three astronauts, with Anderson as the primary protagonist. The actors do a capable enough job, and as their faces are not necessarily familiar to the public at large, they convey a sense of verisimilitude that more recognizable actors probably would not. They look and act more or less as one might expect real astronauts to look and act, and Anderson in particular comes off as a sympathetic character. With a blend of actual footage from lunar missions and well-crafted sets — from the claustrophobic spacecraft interiors to panoramic expanses of lunar surface — there is a genuine sense of remote isolation. While the sets and scenery come off as quite realistic, inside the lander, the characters move and operate as if in normal earth gravity, belying the actual location filming; on occasion, however, the use of odd camera angles and quick cutting helps insinuate the effect of reduced gravity.

To get around the absence of sound in a vacuum — without resorting to the totally unrealistic trope of outer space being an ultimately noisy place — the soundtrack often provides low, surreal thumping, bumping, whooshing sounds, simulating the kind of noises the astronauts might hear within the confines of their spacesuits while operating in a void. In addition, the alien noises that emanate from the radio set have an organic, insect-like quality that early on betray the fact that there's something happening beyond mere electronic interference.

The creatures themselves appear mostly as strangely deformed rocks that move. Quick cuts and mere suggestions of something moving at the edge of one's perception work to build a bit of suspense. Eventually, once the creatures appear in earnest, they're still a bit vague — obviously crab- or spider-like, but the camera's eye never quite gives you the full picture. Not a bad way to present them, all in all. There's never any explanation or even supposition of what these things are, which, within the scope of the story, is the way to go. Unfortunately, it's revealed that the government has sent the astronauts up as human guinea pigs, on a mission not unlike the Nostromo's in Alien. It's a tired device, and I suspect the story might have worked better if the mission had been all about detecting Soviet missiles, with the creatures being discovered in the process, instead of the mission being a secret attempt to gain superiority over the Russians by way of capturing and controlling dangerous alien life forms.

One of the criticisms I'd seen that I quite agree with is that, though the film runs less than 90 minutes, it seems much longer. Yes, it does. While much of the drama is effective and the sensory effects produce the desired results, the varying camera angles, the dizzying transitions, the indistinct images, and confusing cuts also tend to produce fatigue. I recently reviewed Troll Hunter, which includes found footage, but it also provides a much smoother viewing experience, with less chaotic camera work, making for a less fatiguing and more appealing movie. If Apollo 18 had gone that route, I expect it would have been better received.

Nope, it's not all that it ought to have been, but Apollo 18 does offer more, drama- and production-wise, than it gets credit for. I'd give it a solid three out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
The remains of a Russian cosmonaut, whose mysterious fate soon becomes all too clear
The Russian lunar lander, whose spider-like contours provide an appealing visual irony
There's something inside Astronaut's Walker's space helmet....
An interesting — moving — rock formation, wot?

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