Apollo 18

Apollo 18


Reviewed by: David Graham

It's easy to scoff at the current wave of found footage horror films: many look as though they've been cobbled together by opportunistic film students after a few too many beers. However, the best examples demonstrate that their effective execution requires a head-spinning degree of careful planning and thrifty ingenuity.

This is abundantly evident throughout Apollo 18 - it's an undeniable technical achievement (even if it does have a budget about 300 times higher than recent success story Paranormal Activity), and it marks an imaginative breakthrough for a genre previously plagued by slavering zombies and unseen supernatural forces.

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Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego's slow-burn chiller follows the genre's blueprint to a fault - creepy noises progress to barely glimpsed terrors, before the inevitable plunges into darkness and outright panic - while the script borrows many plot points from sci-fi classics such as Alien, but the film ultimately has enough original ideas of its own to keep you engaged for the duration.

NASA officially canned its space program after 17 Apollo missions; however, recently found footage presents evidence of an 18th venture that apparently ended in disaster for its crew. In 1974, three astronauts were secretly sent to the moon to set up cameras and retrieve samples. What they found there suggested their expedition had an ulterior motive. As two of the men find themselves stuck on the surface, their investigations uncover the secrets of previous landings, as well as the presence of something altogether out of this world.

It's easy to see why so many established talents wanted to be involved with this, and it's unlikely the film would be so impressive without them. Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov's role as producer explains the relatively high budget and is testament to the potential this script obviously had from the get-go, while genre stalwart and respected editor Patrick 'Drive Angry' Lussier does an excellent job assembling the many different styles of footage into a coherent and convincing whole. The Weinsteins' executive producer credit explains the canny advertising campaign, with Bob ridiculously but charmingly going on record to 'deny' that this is a work of fiction: "We didn't shoot anything, we found it. Found, baby!" Bless.

NASA apparently refused to lend a hand with the scientific aspect, but you'd be hard pushed to tell; one of the film's strongest aspects is its air of authenticity. Aside from a couple of shots that look as though they were knocked up by a 12-year-old on an Amiga, the film really benefits from the atmosphere generated by the use of antiquated recording equipment and sets that powerfully evoke the period's technology. The moon lander's cramped living quarters make for a claustrophobic hub for the cosmonauts' explorations, with our heroes sleeping stacked on top of each other in hammocks only just accommodated by the tiny vessel.

Likewise, their orbiting comrade is only ever glimpsed tied to the bewildering control panel of his constricting craft, peeping through narrow windows at first in wonder at the landscape he'll never reach, then in mounting panic at what might be transpiring on the surface. It's an intelligent set-up that not only seems historically accurate but an effective device for generating tension that must have been easy on the film's budget too. Predictably, the acting by the mostly unknown leads won't win any awards but it's not as lame as the trailer suggested; the main actors generate considerable sympathy and convey their growing fear without degenerating into wailing banshees as often happens with this type of fare.

Despite several genuine and effectively orchestrated jolts, the film's real downfall is that it just isn't scary enough. By slavishly following the found footage formula, the director guarantees some creeping unease but as with many of these films, the build-up will feel too stretched for some viewers, especially combined with the lengthy scenes of scientific jargon and hokey stock footage. As events take literally darker turns, the mystery of what is actually happening up there becomes fairly gripping, and science is put to appropriate use to generate creatively intense situations; the pitch-black craters are dangerously cold but could hold the key to what the hell is going on, while the orbiting lifeline craft goes out of contact intermittently as it circles round the dark side of the moon.

Also, the story's conspiracy theory angle is never over-played, and works as a neat double-bluff to allay any audience skepticism over the reality of the '69 landing. But for all the film's nicely fleshed out ideas, it still falls a little short of the clammy terror induced by the likes of The Blair Witch Project and Rec. It's definitely worth a watch as a fresh spin on a worn-out concept, but it probably works better as a sci-fi B-movie than as the skin-crawling mockumentary it strives to be.

Reviewed on: 02 Sep 2011
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'Found footage' reveals the truth about why NASA never returned to the Moon.
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Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

Writer: Brian Miller, Cory Goodman

Starring: Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen

Year: 2011

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Canada


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