Unlike most knee-jerky critics quick to deride the slew of faux-documentary “found footage” films, I don’t, by and large, mind the format. There have been some genuine gems, able to combine our current techno-lust with sharp, witty imagery that calls to mind actual disasters while conjuring up fantastical ones (movies like Cloverfield, [rec], Diary of the Dead, and, best of all, the little-seen Australian shocker Lake Mungo). But the format is quickly showing that it’s not a genre built for longevity, as things like last summer’s forgettable The Last Exorcism proved and this week’s Apollo 18 cements fully.
Which, it turns out, is sort of a shame because Apollo 18 has a clever enough conceit – it catalogs a secret mission, never fully acknowledged by NASA, ostensibly to set up technology to keep the Russians from spying on us but (of course) with nefarious undercurrents, launched in the early 1970s. So – three astronauts go up, with minimal backstory – and not much happens, save for some creaky space noises, spooky shadows, and, of course, some intergalactic critters that have a nasty habit of crawling up your space suit and making you go bonkers. (You can see a more explicit examination of this phenomenon in the Ren & Stimpy cartoon “Space Madness.”)
One of the chief problems of Apollo 18 is that it just isn’t science-y enough, by which I mean that the movie isn’t steeped in reality enough. After all, these movies are supposed to be actual footage, shot by astronauts (although most of the camera angles and scenarios are beyond improbable), in a very scary situation. So that gives you license to steep this film in the actual particulars of space travel – most of which are infinitely scarier than the creaky noises we hear and the questionably rendered computer generated beasties. Things like how cold the moon can get, the infinite vacuum of space, and the myriad of problems that can go wrong on these rudimentary missions, aren’t explored. They aren’t even given a cursory glance. Instead, the fantasy elements are amped up, without human or scientific backing… and what the fantasy elements actually are… whoo boy.
I guess I should post a spoiler alert here, although no one is actually going to see it, so… Here goes. The cosmic villains in Apollo 18? MOON ROCKS. That’s right: moon rocks are actually alien eggs or shape shifting space spiders or… something. Honestly, the astronauts have no clue what’s going on and neither does the audience, thanks to the general murkiness of the faux-documentary cinematography. And in the end, it’s pretty hard to care, especially when the nonsensical plot wrinkles bunch up in the final act (NASA and the NSA are going to leave the astronauts to die on the moon but send the guy in the capsule back home?) It’s not funny, it’s not scary, it’s not fun, it’s just… bad. You can only imagine how awful it would have been if you could actually make out what’s going on.