Launched in 1972, Apollo 17 was NASA’s final mission to the moon. So the conceit of “Apollo 18” is that authentic raw footage was mysteriously uploaded to lunartruth.org depicting the trials and tribulations of a top-secret subsequent Apollo mission.
Landing on the lunar surface, two astronauts are immediately vexed by communication difficulties. Something is out there, manifested by a lunar rock that seems to move on its own volition. And if a moving rock doesn’t terrify you, just wait — there’s more!
On their second day outside the module, the astronauts find footprints leading to a Russian LK Proton Lander. Russians on the moon? No! But if the Russians beat us to the moon, they paid dearly for it, as a dead Cosmonaut is found on the deep dark bottom of a crater where the sun has never shone.
Without giving too much away, our astro-boys soon find themselves in a heap of trouble that makes “Apollo 13” look like a walk in the stars. Of course, Apollo 13 was a real flight fraught with real problems. “Apollo 18,” despite its convincingly distressed footage and vérité approach, is never believable, its veneer of authenticity shattered by poorly scripted scenes that leave the audience one step ahead of the action.
Actors Warren Christie and Lloyd Owen give it their damnedest in the cramped set, but neither is very convincing. Despite the varied angles and jostling hand-held camera, Christie and Owen usually wind up looking more like two actors delivering lines than two astronauts fighting for their lives.
Cinematographer Jose David Montero delivers convincing high-grain footage befitting the era, replete with scratches and dust motes, making his new shots blend seamlessly with archival moon footage and digital effects. His use of a strobe as one of the astronauts descends into a pitch black crater is chilling and effective, teasing us with what’s down there in brief snippets surrounded by terrifying blackness.
Kris Finske’s sound effects editing, a mix of echo-y noises, distorted radio waves, and unexplained bumps and pings, chillingly underscores nearly every scene. It is fine work ladled on a little too thick, effectively ratcheting up tension but too weak to maintain it on its own.
Movies like this and “Paranormal Activity” or the aforementioned “Blair Witch Project” draw their power from the overall feeling of veracity. But those movies have the benefit of being set in ordinary environments, playing on old fears dwelling in familiar places. “Apollo 18” takes place in an out-of-this-world setting that is unrelatable. Movies in this sub-genre usually escalate, going from the mundane to the unusual and building to the unthinkable. But “Apollo 18” doesn’t escalate fast enough or high enough.
Of course the real genesis of the new movie isn’t found footage uploaded to the internet, but rather “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov’s screenplay contest, which selected Brian Miller and his “Apollo 18” script as its winner. For Miller, the experience must have been like something out of a fairytale, but in fairytales the moon is made of green cheese.
In “Apollo 18,” it isn’t the moon that’s cheesy, just the movie.