Film Review: Apollo 18 (2011)

I come not to bury Apollo 18, nor to praise it. Though scary and technically well-made, the film is a bust. It is not, however, the abomination that you might have heard it was. Several other reviewers decided that the only way to review the feature was to spoil the twist ending to ward viewers away. Not only is that irresponsible and cruel, it's also grossly inaccurate to what this film is doing. For one thing, there is not twist ending. What's happening is well-established long before the credits roll. It's a thinking person's POV horror/sci-fi hybrid and it relies far too often on the audience to pay attention to minute details on grainy film stock. This is no Paranormal Activity. Things genuinely happen in the film to raise the stakes before the last five minutes. This is the story of the lost last mission to the moon, Apollo 18. Three astronauts are tasked with collecting rock samples and setting up cameras and sound equipment on the south pole of the moon. One is left in orbit for the recovery mission. The other two plant the USA flag and get to work.

If you pay attention, you know things aren't going well from the first five minutes on the moon, where shadows move and the director opts to highlight unnatural occurrences in the background. This isn't a film where nothing happens; it's a film where things never stop happening if you actually watch the movie. Show up with your eyes ready to roll and you will hate it for unfair reasons. It's not the film's fault that you kept looking away, checking your phone, or talking to your friend during every scene.

Is it director Gonzalo López-Gallego's fault that you can literally blink and miss a big clue about what's actually happening in the film? No. He gives the audience more than enough time to adjust to the dynamics of the film before the astronauts enter space. He spends a few minutes establishing the characters in various styles of filmstock that will be used once they enter space. There are TV cameras, 16MM film cameras, Super 8 cameras, black and white satellite cameras, and even still cameras used to tell this story. The transitions between stock are normalized in the first few minutes and handled with a good eye for style.

Right now it sounds like this is a positive review. It's not. There are way too many flaws to genuinely recommend this film. While I found myself jumping in my seat quite often in the second half of Apollo 18, I can safely say that every single one of those scares was telegraphed from a mile away. The screen would get darker, a character would kind of notice something, nothing would happen for a few seconds, then something would jump out. Repeat over and over until the final scene of the film--which, it's worth noting, is not even close to the first time you see the big reveal; I hate film reviewers who blatantly lie, oversimplify, and take out aggression against a film genre on a film that doesn't deserve that level of vitriol.

This is not a shaky-cam horror film. The astronauts have obviously been well-trained in how to handle equipment as the only shaking happens when things would shake. The lunar rover, for example, causes the astronauts and the camera to move up and down like a bumpy car ride. When the lunar lander is hit by weather or unexpected equipment failures, the static cameras on the ship flicker and move. This, too, is rather realistic. Thankfully, Apollo 18 is no Blair Witch Project. It's shot well with a higher level of realism than it actually deserves.

The screenplay is a big problem. The issue is not the attempts to misdirect the audience from the beginning as to what is going on. The issue is not opening up the film for the audience. Though there isn't much technical talk, it's actually more of a shocking reveal at the end (when it's not supposed to be shocking) that the acronym DOD stands for Department of Defense. You would think that maybe, sometime before the last three minutes, someone would spell that out for the audience. I figured it out maybe the eighth time I heard it, but only because I had to take myself out of the action to focus on such a minute detail. This happened many times throughout the film when the equipment became the focus. The characters might as well have made up words for everything in those scenes for all the good the screenplay did in explaining those rockier sequences.

Here's the thing. If you think you can see this with a full theater full of people and you like the horror crowd experience, you might consider going. There are enough scares to even make the most cynical viewer get to the edge of their seat and help build that sense of community. Despite assertions that nothing happens until the end, I can think of twenty scares that got a great reaction out of the audience. If you think horror films are just there to scare you and nothing else, you'll have fun at this film. If you expect horror to do something more and genuinely be good, Apollo 18 is a total bust.

Rating: 5/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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