A movie like Apollo 18 coming out in this day and age has a huge hurdle to overcome before it even gets started–defeat the “it’s just another found footage horror movie” nay sayers and become its own unique film. Apollo 18 doesn’t exactly do that, but it does manage to get a few good scares out of the audience and send everyone home feeling like they should probably sleep with the lights on.
After the Apollo 17 mission, Apollos 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled due to budgetary concerns at NASA, or so the public was meant to think. Apollo 18 intimates that only 19 and 20 were shut down completely, and that 18 was carried out heavily classified by the Department of Defense. Three astronauts were sent into space to place equipment on the moon that would help the United States spy on the Soviet Union. At least, that’s what they thought. The DoD had other plans though as the crew unwittingly investigate an extra-terrestrial presence on the moon, that obviously starts stirring up some shit.
Apollo 18 makes every effort to make sure that you were paying attention to Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 when he explained every aspect of his mission to his son. Terms like “orbiter” and “LEM” are in heavy rotation between the astronauts with a dash of some technical jargon that will at least register in your brain if you’ve seen other space flight films, rather than simply pinging off your atmosphere. Of course, a film that takes place between three astronauts in a six foot by six foot space won’t make for the wordiest piece, but the few scientific words they do use make perfect sense even to the layman.
Realistically, this kind of storytelling wouldn’t work in any other format than “found footage”. There’s virtually no character development, there’s no side characters to act as exposition sponges to be talked at just to get story elements across to the audience, and the astronauts are all pretty interchangeable as characters. But it makes sense that the characters would all be very similar, they all went through the same training program after all. And as for exposition, why would these astronauts stop and explain what’s going on aloud to each other, when they both already know what’s going on? It could have been very distracting if director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego decided to stick huge swathes of dialog into Apollo 18 having the characters dig deep into anything other than their current situation on the moon, and omitting it helped keep the story concise. But that doesn’t mean the movie was perfect.
Apollo 18’s first mistake was telling the audience that the entire film was edited together from 80 hours of footage that mysteriously found its way onto lunartruth.com. If that were true, then this film was edited together by the most sadistic asshole who ever bought Final Cut Pro. This is without a doubt meant to be a horror film, and in no way resembles anything other than a horror film. If this footage actually existed in this public database, the first film to be put together would undoubtedly be 100% more educational. Sure the content would be frightening, but the main goal would be to get this information across to viewers, not make them piss their pants in fear.
The editing itself a lot of the time was barely editing at all, and a lot of times we actually see the ends of reels of the 16mm film the crew was supposedly filming with, an easy fix for anyone who knows how to operate an editing suite. Which leads to the film’s biggest shortcoming. Apollo 18 is tiresome just to look at. It’s shot with about three stationary cameras and two hand-helds that the astronauts frequently cart around with them, and none of them seem to be shooting in the same format. The clarity is constantly shifting, the colors bend, and watching static roll across the screen like on a poorly tracked VCR gets really old, really fast. I recognize that they wouldn’t be shooting in HD, but a lot of the artificially added aging Apollo 18’s editors did to the footage is more distracting than it needed to be to uphold the authenticity of the story.
Fortunately, the film does enough right that even though you’re so tired of the footage itself the story has immersed you enough to ignore it and just hang on for the ride. 90% of the film’s “scariness” for lack of a better term comes from the relentless atmospheric noise the sound team created. There’s a constant undulating hum that builds a sense of unease on its own regardless of the fact that there are also aliens on the moon. That, coupled with the irregular beeps and boops that the LEM emits will unsettle even the most veteran horror fans.
Apollo 18’s greatest success is their capitalization on one of the greatest fears of mankind as a whole–ultimate isolation. This doesn’t take place in a house where if you need help you can call a priest, or in the woods where if you were to run far enough in one direction you’d eventually find the end. No, this takes place on the moon in one of the most claustrophobic places ever filmed. Even more so than the Apollo 13 living quarters. If there’s anything malevolent inside these astronauts’ living space, and there frequently is, they take minutes to suit up if they want to go outside away from the threat, and if they even get out the door they’re on the fucking moon. They don’t have neighbors, they don’t have help, they just have nothingness. Literally. Just the vacuum of space. And that is terrifying. Having one thing actively trying to kill you is scary enough, but when there are a dozen way for you to accidentally die on your own, you can’t help but be terrified.
Apollo 18 makes its mistakes, but ultimately the film is enjoyable if you’re looking for a good scare. It’s a little slow and arduous at times, and it’s certainly lacking in depth of story and explanation, but the mystery is part of what the director is trying to create and it helps support the film’s authenticity. Apollo 18 isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely worth your time if you go into it looking for horror.