REVIEW: Slow, Ridiculous Apollo 18 is Found Footage Horror Done Wrong
When they work, found footage films are testaments to the power of a limited perspective. Features like The Blair Witch Project, REC and Cloverfield get juice out of the fact that we're not able to see or know more than the characters on screen. They use a gloss of the intentionally clumsy -- jittery camerawork, lower quality footage, mundane dialogue -- to allow a story to invade from an unexpected angle. They require cleverness in concept and, more importantly, in construction, particularly when the found footage flick in question is of the horror genre, as so many of them are; there's no easier way to lose your audience than to make them wonder why, when such frightening things are allegedly happening, your characters are still bothering to roll tape. On the plus side, they're a way to hide your monster (or witch, or demon, or alien) from view for longer than is usually allowed a more standard film -- and the monster we imagine is usually much scarier than the one we finally see on screen.
That's definitely the case for Apollo 18, a sci-fi/horror attempt directed by Spaniard Gonzalo López-Gallego in his English-language debut that's meticulous in its "found" visual details, minorly smart in concept, painfully slow to actually watch and so ridiculous in its big reveal that it almost has to be seen to be believed. It claims to be assembled from footage of a classified final trip to the moon that took place in 1974, hours of which were allegedly uploaded to a website called lunartruth.org. Three astronauts are sent on this mission -- John Grey (Ryan Robbins), whose role is to man the command module while it's in lunar orbit, and Ben Anderson (Warren Christie) and Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), who get to go down to the surface of the moon and spend a few days setting up what they've been told are devices to detect Soviet missiles.
The film makes expansive use of the many cameras trained on this trio on their trip -- the cameras mounted inside their respective modules, the motion-sensor cameras outside, the cameras on the lunar vehicle -- switching in quality and look in way that's actually very impressive, though the 16mm cameras the astronauts carry to document what's happening bear the majority of the narrative burden. To describe what unfolds as a slow burn is to be awfully generous. While John waits, circling, above, Ben and Nate notice strange sounds outside their module as they try to sleep. Something's interfering with their communication signals; something's messing with their equipment outside. They find a Soviet spaceship and a dead cosmonaut in the film's best and only genuinely tense sequence, involving navigating with a flash in the dark of an impact crater. But the extraterrestrials are as sluggish in their menace as the astronauts are in believing there's any threat to their precarious continued existence, until the latter finish up and try to leave, and can't.
Which brings us to the aliens. If you're interested in keeping their nature a mystery, please skip the end of this review, because there are spoilers ahead.
Okay. The aliens are rocks. They are moon rocks that grow crab-like legs and scuttle around and get inside people's spacesuits and give them bloodshot eyes and space madness. After all that drudging buildup, all the mysterious tracks that obviously aren't human, the blurry shots of the lunar landscape with one small flicker of movement in the corner, the smashed Soviet space helmet, the endless check-ins with the orbiting module as it goes in and out of comm range, that the payoff is something so laughable is infuriating -- even more so than the realization that the film's finale makes the survival of any of the footage we're supposedly watching pretty much impossible. The aliens are facehugger knockoffs with all the frightening aspects excised. They're killer paperweights.
Apollo 18 ends with an ominous note about the hundreds of pounds of moon rock collected over the different lunar missions, some gifted to different foreign heads of state. It's doubtless intended to raise the specter of a sequel about invasion or infection, but instead it brings to mind the image of dozens of world leaders staring in bemusement at display cases, inside of which their lunar souvenirs have sprouted legs and started rattling around, hoping to causing mischief.