Review: “Apollo 18”

The “found footage” style of filmmaking has belonged almost exclusively to the horror genre to date. While “Apollo 18” has some elements of horror, this marks the first time that this style has been adapted to science fiction. While blending elements of history, myth and fear, “Apollo 18” skillfully illustrates a sense of verisimilitude and yields frequent moments of genuine suspense.

The film opens with factual information on previous Apollo missions. Apollo 17 was the eleventh and final manned mission in the American Apollo space program in 1972; however this film would like audiences to believe there was a secret additional mission in 1973. “Apollo 18” presents itself as a film that is culled from top secret footage depicting American astronauts sent to the moon on an eighteenth Apollo mission funded by The US Department of Defense.

The mission is veiled in the utmost of secrecy and is kept from the general public and even the family members of the astronauts involved. Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen) and Captain Benjamin Anderson (Warren Christie) pilot NASA’s lunar module named Liberty, while Colonel John Grey (Ryan Robbins) is tasked with piloting Freedom, the command module.

The astronauts have been led to believe their mission entails setting up high frequency transmitters on the surface of the moon which are allegedly part of an anti-missile defense system (for keeping watch over the Soviet Union). However, the true nature of their mission unravels early in their lunar investigations as the astronauts discover mysterious fresh, man-made footprints. With additional evidence of possible alien life forms existing on the surface of the moon, they realize they’re not alone and that the true nature of their mission could be far more mysterious and terrifying.

Among the key elements involved with successfully selling the “found footage” concept to audiences, the first and most important is the casting of relative unknowns. “Apollo 18” succeeds in terms of casting, as only three characters appear on screen throughout the film. The performances of Christie, Owen and Robbins (who are not credited for their respective roles) are uniformly subtle, which is required for the realistic nature of the film.

However, it’s the characters themselves who serve as a missing element in “Apollo 18″. There are no established relationships between the characters, and the film never conveys a sense of history or real connection between them. Some of the more dramatic and tense moments comes from the documentary style of the filmmaking that plays upon the survival instincts of the audience, not from the characters themselves.

“Apollo 18” depicts lunar events from 1973 as captured on 16mm Westinghouse cameras. While still maintaining a theatrical quality presentation, the film attempts to mimic the look of 16mm footage with introducing a fair amount of grain, scratches, color saturation and overall signs of age to the picture. Unlike previous “found footage” films that rely on the use of a single camera, “Apollo 18” implements many different cameras that help document the story.

The aspect ratio fluctuates throughout the film, depending on which cameras are being utilized at a specific time. There are hand-held cameras, mounted spacesuit cameras, and cameras affixed to the interior and exterior of the lunar and command modules (for a mission of such secrecy, it is certainly well documented). The multiple camera technique serves the story well and the quality of the presentation is believable for 1973 (the film even runs out at one moment of heightened suspense).

The “found footage” genre of filmmaking is often labeled gimmicky and cheap looking and is certainly not for everyone. While “Apollo 18” is far from cheap looking, the argument of utilizing a gimmick in order to tell its story is a fair one. If the “found footage” gimmick was removed and the film was shot as a straightforward science fiction thriller, would it still be effective? The answer is decidedly no as the gimmick is part of the story itself. If one removes the “gimmick” of backwards storytelling from Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”, is that film still as effective? The answer is no for the same reason.

Regardless of the merits of the “found footage” style itself, these films are limited in what they can convey when compared to traditionally made films. As such, expectations need be adjusted accordingly before viewing such a film. For “Apollo 18″, director Gonzalo López-Gallego exploits every possible tool within the confines of the genre and manages to create moments of true tension and genuine scares.

The unique aspect of this style of filmmaking requires effort from both sides of the screen. The filmmakers are tasked with selling the “found footage” concept by making a compelling story and capturing a sense of reality using unconventional methods. The audience is asked to accept that they are actually viewing genuine “found footage” and let some obvious questions such as “how did they manage capture such perfect audio in space?” fall by the wayside. For the most part, the makers of this film have done their part and if audiences can successfully suspend their disbelief for 86 minutes; “Apollo 18” succeeds admirably.