Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: in Apollo 18, previously classified/unreleased footage has finally been uncovered, shedding light on an unspeakable event that was previously hidden from the world by the powers that be. Unquestionably, Apollo 18 draws a lot from its predecessors in the “found footage” horror sub-genre. Does director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego bring enough to the table to make Apollo 18 a memorable movie-going experience a la Paranormal Activity, or is his first foray into American cinema ultimately forgettable?
I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for the fast-expanding “found footage” horror sub-genre. When it was released in 1999, The Blair Witch Project was the scariest movie I had ever seen in my life. Flash forward to 2011 and you’ll see that the sub-genre has exploded: Paranormal Activity (one and two), Cloverfield, and The Last Exorcism are just the ones that instantly jump to mind and, with the exception of Exorcism, I loved all of them. Something about the visceral feeling of viewing the entire film from the perspective of the characters, as in Cloverfield, or from a fixed, almost voyeuristic vantage point, as in the Paranormal Activity films, clicks with me and frightens me in a way that no other type of horror sub-genre can match. Naturally, as soon as I saw the trailer of Apollo 18, it jumped to the top of my “must see” list.
In footage recently “recovered,” Apollo 18 chronicles the experiences of astronauts John (Ryan Robbins), Nate (Lloyd Owen), and Ben (Warren Christie) on a classified expedition to the Moon in the early 70s. With John relegated to awaiting the return of his comrades in the orbiter, Nate and Ben traverse the Moon together, deploying Department of Defense machinery and collecting Moon rocks. Before long, the two discover something is very, very wrong. Without communication with Houston or John, the two must fend for themselves as they struggle to discover what is happening on the strange rock and how to get home safely.
Despite its minimal cast and scant $5 million reported budget, Apollo 18 manages to provide an ever-increasing amount of tension without succumbing to cheap jump-scares. As in many other “found footage” horror films, the viewers know no more about the strange goings on at the Moon than do the characters themselves. In my eyes, this complete lack of information is what makes “found footage” horror films, and Apollo 18 specifically, so effective. While all horror films require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, placing the viewer right in the fray with the characters ultimately makes for a more frightening experience.
In a decision that might turn off some viewers and which certainly took me a few moments to get used to, Lopez-Gallego fully commits to the “found footage” concept of Apollo 18, opting to present the film in a 4×3 aspect ratio and with defects typically found in thirty-year-old film, such as dirt on the edge of the frame, scratches in the film, and a lighter hue to the coloration. That is not to say that Apollo 18 is by any means an ugly film, though. While it’s clear Apollo 18 was filmed on a tight budget, Lopez-Gallego’s directorial vision goes a long way to establishing the mood of the film. In two particularly memorable scenes, Ben descends into a pitch-black crater with only his periodically pulsing flashlight to guide him. Although it may sound like a simple parlor trick on paper, the lack of light perfectly underscores the viewer’s and Ben’s lack of information. As Ben and the viewer explore the dark craters, they both have absolutely no clue what could be awaiting them.
Predictably, Apollo 18 is not without its faults; compared to the last three quarters of the film, the first quarter of the film is almost interminably slow. Clearly, Lopez-Gallego’s goals were to fill out the backstories of the characters and the admittedly short 88 minute runtime. Ultimately, though, these introductory scenes end up having almost no impact on the rest of the film and could have easily been cut or reworked to allow for more scenes on the Moon. Moreover, and maybe this is simply the first sign of my own “found footage” fatigue, but I wish the film had ended a few minutes sooner than it had. When you know how any film in a given sub-genre is going to end before it even begins, something needs to be done.
While Apollo 18 is certainly not as frightening as either of the Paranormal Activity films, Lopez-Gallego’s skillful direction produces an eery and unnerving experience which is not at all hindered by its PG-13 rating. Although Apollo 18 starts slow and moves at a methodical pace, I have no qualms recommending Apollo 18 to viewers looking for a well-crafted, moody film in the “found footage” sub-genre.