Apollo 18
R1 - America - Anchor Bay Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (28th April 2012).
The Film

If there’s one thing Hollywood knows how to do, it’s beat a novel concept into the ground so hard and for so long that any appreciation it once had is almost totally forgotten. A perfect example is the headache-inducing 3-D craze, but almost equally as wrung dry is the “found footage” genre. These are the types of films that Hollywood loves – they almost always star no-name actors, operate on a very limited budget, and most manage to make back more than their initial investment during the first day of release. It’s one of the few practically assured guarantees in town, so every studio is all too eager to crank them out as quickly as filmmakers can come up with concepts for them. I’ll admit that I still don’t feel completely burned out on the genre, though. Even though there have been plenty of turds left in that punch bowl, I still feel that there are stories that could be lent to that framework and achieve great results.

“Apollo 18” (2011) is not one of those films.

The concept sure is intriguing as hell: supposedly declassified footage from NASA’s secret moon mission, Apollo 18, is uncovered, edited by someone, and then released to the masses so that we can all know the truth. There is, according to the film, a reason why we’ve never gone back, and this picture aims to show you precisely why that is. A group of three astronauts - Ben (Warren Christie), Nate (Lloyd Owen), and John (Ryan Robbins) – are sent into space to visit the moon on a secret expedition. Shortly after arrival, while out on a scouting mission, Ben and Nate discover a derelict Russian spacecraft and, not far from it, the body of a cosmonaut. During the excursion Nate is bitten by something, leaving him with a nasty wound on his ribcage that begins to worsen very quickly. Soon, Ben is left to fend for himself while Nate’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, forcing him to desperately try contacting his base on Earth for some chance of a rescue mission. The moon, it seems, is not quite as dead as we had once thought.

I’m a sucker for space horror films, so I’d be lying if I said the premise didn’t sound like something right up my alley. The previews showed some promise, but I remained cautiously optimistic until reviews started to pour in. They all pretty much said the same thing: the film is a dreadful bore until the final 20 minutes, and by that point there was just no redeeming itself. I can’t say I disagree. This movie would have worked so much better if it was an actual film, and not some schizophrenic mess of “found footage” that someone (who? some crackpot conspiracy theorist?) hastily edited together. That’s one thing that can drive me insane with these films – the editing doesn’t need to be so quick-cut, full of shaky, indecipherable clips that do very little to serve the story. If this film was supposedly edited down from countless hours of footage someone obtained, why didn’t they try to put together something a little more cohesive? It’s over an hour of practically nothing – guys walking slowwwwwwwwwly across the moon’s surface, punched up only by jump scares and seen-it-before terror. I don’t know how a film is supposed to scare me or build any sort of tension when viewers barely have the ability to tell what going on in the frame. You can’t be scared of blurry objects and loud noises; it doesn’t jibe.

One thing I did like about the film – actually, I may have loved it – was the aesthetic. As pointed out in the commentary track, the film’s director, Gonzalo López-Gallego, purposely degraded film stock with a variety of methods in order to make it look like it had aged authentically. He didn’t go the easy route and have a computer neatly dirty up his print for him. Nope, this guy went old-school and did it all himself. Even better, he decided to shoot the film using a number of vintage 70's camera lenses. The result is so good that some people might not be able to tell this was a modern film. None of the actors are well-known (as far as I know), lending an extra layer of credence to the proceedings. We’ve all seen dozens of famous clips from the archives of NASA, and I’ll be damned if this film doesn’t match up exactly to that footage. It’s highly impressive, and it’s something I’d love to see more directors do if they want to give their moves a distressed, aged appearance. Don’t cheap out and let some fancy computer program do the work; THIS is how to get it done right.

This film would have certainly worked better as a proper theatrical feature. I know astronauts filmed quite a bit anytime they were in space, but I don’t think they would continue to do so once some serious shit started to hit the solar fans. Let’s not even mention that the static cameras happen to capture some of the best footage and angles – how convenient, right? There’s no reason this had to be found footage, since López-Gallego could have still shot on distressed stock, and made this for a very low budget, but his results would have been far greater. I know that some filmmakers, possibly even these guys, like to use found footage because it puts the audience right into the “eyes” of the characters, possibly aiding in upping the tension. The problem is that most filmmakers aren’t paying attention to the fact that most moviegoers think it’s just a nauseating gimmick that needs to die a slow, painful death. If this film had been made in a traditional fashion, I really thin they could have been on to something. As it stands now, it’s a failed attempt to craft a suspenseful space horror film.

Video

Although the back cover states the aspect ratio is 1.78:1, the actual image is somewhere between 1.33:1 and 1.66:1 (closer to 1.38:1) since widescreen video wouldn’t have been in use at the time this was supposedly filmed. As I stated earlier, the filmmakers intentionally degraded the image to look like long-lost footage from over 30 years ago, so don’t go in expecting this to have any kind of spit-and-polish that some more recent films in the genre have sported. The image is gritty, dirty, full of specks, debris, scratches, burn marks, over-exposure, grain… and it looks marvelous. This is how they wanted it to look, and I think it rivals many of the bigger budgeted (and better known) wannabe exploitation/drive-in pictures that started copying this aesthetic after “Grindhouse” (2007). Not that this film has much, if anything, in common with that particular picture, but where “Grindhouse” used digital means to get their look, the people behind “Apollo 18” did it the old-fashioned way. They sound extremely pleased with the results on the commentary track, and I wholeheartedly agree that this was the best possible image for something of this ilk.

Audio

The film is purportedly culled from surviving footage from a NASA mission flow over 30 years ago, and while the English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track doesn’t sound quite as dated, it also features a limited range that works within the parameters set by the film. There is no score at all, so the entirety of the audio presentation is left to the actors and their respective voices. Almost everything is confined to the front speakers, although I may have detected some faint sounds coming from the rear speakers. Even with such a narrow scope, it works because it feels congruent with the video presentation, so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t feel as full as some other modern found footage pictures. Subtitles are included in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.

Extras

“Apollo 18” hits DVD stacked with a healthy amount of supplemental materials. We get a highly informative audio commentary, loads of deleted & alternate scenes, alternate endings and some bonus trailers. A piece or two on how they made the film would have been nice, as I wanted to see some of the sets and shooting style employed, but I’m sure the film’s lackluster reception and poor box office returns prevented anything further from being assembled.

The audio commentary with director Gonzalo López-Gallego and editor Patrick Lussier is one of those enthusiastic tracks that made me slightly appreciate the film more after viewing it. Or, rather, it made me appreciate the effort that went into making it. The two talk mostly technical, but it’s all pretty fascinating stuff. López-Gallego wanted to make sure the film looked authentically vintage, so he had film stock purposely degraded by exposing portions of it to light, scratching it and aging it so that it would feel real. He also used 70's camera lenses to achieve the intended aesthetic. The two also discuss how frame rate were constantly changed to get some scenes to look like archival NASA footage. It’s a shame the movie turned out to be a bore because it’s clear real work went into making it look as genuine as possible.

There is an exhaustive amount of deleted & alternate footage here, though most are just very short snippets. I don’t feel any of these scenes would have added anything of interest to the film had they been left in. They include:

- “Recovered Footage from the Russian Cosmonaut” runs for 25 seconds, shaky cam footage presumably taken right before the Russian was killed.
- “Fun in the Cafeteria” runs for 36 seconds, our trio jokes around on Earth before they depart.
- “Glove and Dial” runs for 1 minute and 16 seconds, the guys test some of the equipment in a lab.
- “Christmas Lights and Praying” runs for 36 seconds, John says a prayer for good luck.
- “Number 13” runs for 46 seconds, Nate jokes about being the 13th man on the moon.
- “Ben Sleeping” runs for 19 seconds, yep, here he is.
- “Dirty Twist” runs for 24 seconds, the guys all talk about going home.
- “Ben and Gray Scale” runs for 17 seconds, he holds up a gray scale sheet.
- “Pictures of Earth” runs for 49 seconds, the guys take some once-in-a-lifetime pictures.
- “How Many Dead Russians Are on the Moon? Version 1 – In the Trench” runs for 1 minute and 26 seconds, Ben finds the dead cosmonaut in a higher location.
- “How Many Dead Russians Are on the Moon? Version 2 – Half Buried” runs for 1 minute and 42 seconds, this time, Ben finds the cosmonaut half buried near the module.
- “Rock in Spacesuit” runs for 53 seconds, Ben finds a rock in Nate’s suit.
- “What’s Wrong with You?” runs for 1 minute and 56 seconds, Nate begins to act strange.
- “Ben Says Goodbye and is Chased” runs for 2 minutes and 48 seconds, he says a long goodbye via recording to his family before Nate gives chase.
- “The White Room – John Grey Debriefed by D.O.D.” runs for 2 minutes and 27 seconds, this would have occurred had the film ended differently.
- “The John Grey Memorial” runs for 3 minutes and 47 seconds, various clips of John talking while in orbit.

There are a handful of alternate endings included as well:

- “The Many Deaths of LMP Ben Anderson: Version 1 – Suffocation” runs for 1 minute and 39 seconds, Ben runs out of air and dies.
- “The Many Deaths of LMP Ben Anderson: Version 2 – Infected” runs for 46 seconds, the creatures finally get a hold of Ben.
- “The Many Deaths of LMP Ben Anderson: Version 3 – Attacked” runs for 28 seconds, Ben is attacked and killed by a possessed Nate.
- “The Many Deaths of LMP Ben Anderson: Version 4 – Crashes” runs for 1 minute and 41 seconds, Ben crashes back down on the moon and dies.

The disc opens with bonus trailers for the following Anchor Bay releases:

- “Scream 4” runs for 2 minutes and 28 seconds.
- “The Zombie Diaries 2: World of the Dead” runs for 1 minute and 31 seconds.

Packaging

The single disc DVD comes housed in a standard black keep case. A slipcover is included at the time of this writing with art that replicates the cover… but it’s embossed and shiny, too! Slipcover nerds rejoice.

Overall

“Apollo 18” looks great, but the footage just isn’t compelling enough to captivate viewers long enough to make it to the rushed climax. I heard reports of people booing in the theater, and it’s easy to see why. It’ often moves at an unbearably slow clip. I had a hard time focusing while watching this at home; I can’t imagine how some people managed in a theater… after having paid good money. Yikes.

The Film: D Video: B+ Audio: B- Extras: B- Overall: C-

 


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