Apollo 18 : Houston, we have a Problem

The found-footage genre took us deep into the woods with The Blair Witch Project (1999). It exposed the ghost of John Wayne Gacy in 8213: Gacy House (2010). It documented a demonic entity in the Paranormal Activity series. In Diary of the Dead (2008), found-footage highlighted the deceased returning to life. With Apollo 18, the genre heads into the darkness of outer space and lands on the Moon.

Apollo 18 unfolds in 1974. The Department of Defense (D.O.D.) has taken over NASA’s latest manned mission to the Moon, the Apollo XVIII. Astronauts Ben Anderson, Nate Walker, and John Grey comprise the crew of this top-secret mission. John orbits the Moon while Ben and Nate descend to the lunar surface. The beginning of this film seems like a documentary on space rockets. There are lots of shots of the astronauts sideways and upside down in the cramped spacecraft. One of them plays with his pen in near zero gravity. We hear technical jargon over radio frequencies. The Earth is shown from space.

The film’s first half is dull and visually uninteresting. By the time the astronauts actually walk on the Moon, much of the movie’s narrative has deflated. The notion that the D.O.D. lied to the astronauts about their mission should’ve added a dose of intrigue to Apollo 18. However, this idea of a conspiracy lacks any solid build-up and so it fails to make the overall story compelling.

The creepiness factor is introduced clumsily. A motion detection camera captures some slight movements on the lunar surface. As astronaut Ben handles a random geological sample and while wearing full gear, he remarks that, “the sample feels strange.” Yet when he’s back in the module without his suit on, Ben doesn’t examine the sample further. During their first night on the Moon, Ben and Nate hear strange crawling sounds. In predictable fashion, they put on their suits and go out naively into the shadows of the Moon to investigate.

Ben expresses that he has a “bad feeling” about it. Yet when Ben comes across unexplainable tracks on the ground, he suggests, “Let’s see where they lead.” Ben then descends into a freezing, dark lunar crater even though Nate advised him not to. For a guy who has a “bad feeling” about most things, Ben sure lets his curiosity get the best of him.

Upon preparing to take off from the Moon, the craft is sabotaged and damaged. Nate ventures outside and returns a changed man. Nate now looks sinister and has a strange wound. Ben tends to his partner and documents everything with his handheld video camera. At this point in the film, there is no sense of dread. It’s all pretty bland. It’s strange that the isolation of outer space and Nate’s eerie appearance are unable to make Apollo 18 even a little bit frightening.

The disappointing Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) is a better film than this. At least Paranormal 2 decorated the lame acting and plodding story with a few jump-scares. After viewing Apollo 18, it’s little wonder that its promotional trailer was so good. It contained the film’s best moments. Really, there is nothing else to this flick.

Extraterrestrial life forms threaten the crew of the Apollo XVIII during 4 minutes at the film’s conclusion. The lunar critters are stony, crab-like entities. Check out The X-Files episodes “Ice” and “Terma” for more threatening and disturbing alien life forms. Speaking of those X-Files episodes, they managed to deliver genuine dread and sci-fi action without ever leaving the Earth.

If not for the poorly written character of Ben, much of the found footage gimmick of Apollo 18 wouldn’t have been possible. Ben is the guy who films almost everything, even under extreme circumstances. In the final act, Ben manages to capture footage when his oxygen level is at 25% and dropping. He continues filming when he crashes the lunar rover. Ben also videotapes his fall into yet another dark crater. Ben is no joke when it comes to filming. It’s unbelievable.

In Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), scientists discovered an ancient black artifact on the Moon. It was nothing like what Ben and Nate discovered. The black monolith of 2001 is more unnerving, magnificent and mysterious than the stone-like creatures in Apollo 18. This flat endeavor will leave you underwhelmed and cheated. Apollo 18’s decent moments are crammed into its final 4 minutes. Avoid this one; the trailer for it is all you need to watch.

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