Yeah, I know — I thought I was done with all these “found footage” horror flicks, too, but something about the trailers for first-time director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego’s Apollo 18 piqued my curiosity back when they began making the rounds last spring (this movie has been bounced around by the Weinstein Company an awful lot on the release schedule — first it was slated for last April, then it was moved waaaaaayyyy back to January of 2012, and then about a month ago it was announced it was being moved forward for a Labor Day weekend dump-off — suffice to say it’s not a film they’ve ever apparently felt all that confident in and just didn’t seem to know quite what the hell to do with, but it’s been in the can for some time now just waiting for an unobtrusive time to be quietly let out to die a quick death), and now here it is.
I suppose, really, there was nowhere else the whole “hand-held horror” subgenre could go except to the moon at this point, given that everything else has already been done a few times over, but even so it’s sort of an ingenious enough little set-up, and that, combined with my bizarre fascination with every single lunar conspiracy from the mundane (did we really go or not?) to the truly exotic (Alternative 3 — and by the way, Apollo 18 owes more than just a bit to original the British Alternative 3 TV hoax (or was it?) program), had me in line (a short one, I admit) to see this on opening day.
The premise here is pretty simple — there was actually a secret 18th Apollo mission to the moon that was never revealed to the public, it was, as usual, manned by three astronauts (played by Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, and Ryan Robbins, who all do the square-jawed, all-American-guy thing pretty well, it must be said) that was so hush-hush that not even their families were told where they were going, and the NASA brass didn’t bother to inform them of why they were going until they got there. One guy seems to know a bit more than the others, but even he turns out to be in the dark about most of the mission specifics, and it isn’t until they discover an apparently-abandoned Soviet landing probe on the outskirts of a giant crater that they start to have a hello of a strong suspicion that there’s a very dark reason their superiors have kept the truth from them — and that they’re probably not expected to come back from this mission alive.
And that’s one of the film’s real weak points — it’s pretty obvious from the word go that all three of these poor sons of bitches are dead meat. The other big flaw is that the ending sequence is sort of flat and doesn’t really generate as much tension as earlier segments in the film. But apart from that —
For a modestly-budgeted ($5 million) film with no recognizable stars, no “name” talent behind the camera (apart from veteran editor Patrick Lussier, who took a turn in the director’s chair for the well-done My Bloody Valentine 3D and does a great job here) and little to no studio support behind it, Apollo 18 actually has a lot going for it up until the final 10 or 15 minutes. For one thing, the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife in many critical scenes (I saw this flick with my brother, who isn’t a horror fan by any stretch of the imagination, and he literally jumped out of his seat on a few occasions); the script is logically consistent and provides plausible explanations for why the mission was secret, why these guys recorded everything, why it’s edited together in quasi-cinematic fashion, and how the footage came to be made public (through the auspices of a fictitious moon conspiracy site called lunartruth.com); the lunar sets look strikingly convincing (for those who have suggested on various forums and the like that it looks “fake” I suggest they take a look at the actual lunar footage and tell me which looks more like it was shot on a studio soundstage); and the acting is well beyond what we’ve got any right to expect in a film of this type, easily several notches above the performances in Cloverfield , The Blair Witch Project, or either (until October, that is) of the Paranormal Activity films. So for a release that the Weinsteins are trying to sneak out through the back door, there’s actually plenty here that they don’t have to hang their heads about at all.
But yeah. The rather lackluster conclusion that fails to even deliver on the lower-than-low expectations you have given that you already know there’s literally only one way the whole thing is going to be wrapped up. And that’s a real bummer because, as I said, up until then this is a movie that has a lot more going for it than we probably have any right to expect. Oh well. If they’d bothered to splurge for a new ending sequence that delivered on some of the movie’s promise in those long months it was sitting on the shelf, they’d probably have an unassuming little winner on their hands here — as it is, what they’ve got is something of a wasted opportunity, all things considered. On future low-key winter Saturday late afternoons/early evenings when you notice this thing is on basic cable somewhere, Apollo 18 won’t be the worst way to spend 90 minutes of your life. For now, though, it’s probably not worth dropping $5-10 bucks on to see at the theater.