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The late Gene Siskel frequently gauged a movie’s quality
with a question that has come to be known in the critical lexicon as Siskel’s
Test: “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having
lunch?” A similar thought is begged by APOLLO 18, which strikes this reviewer
as less interesting than a documentary about its creation would be.
I have no idea if any of APOLLO 18 is comprised of real,
treated or untreated NASA footage, though given the light it inevitably
presents the government in and the way events transpire, I would imagine not
much. (Before I go further about the film itself, this is too good not to
share: A query to distributor Dimension Films about the possibility of interviewing
director Gonzalo López-Gallego a couple of months back was turned down with the
explanation that he was too busy assembling all the actual NASA film and video
that the whole of the movie allegedly presents.) The making-of segment that
will presumably accompany APOLLO 18’s disc release, revealing how the
environments of the moon and the capsule that lands there were realistically
recreated and the shots given their many and varied found-footage appearances,
are likely to engage the viewer in the way the generic story does not, some
occasional chilly highlights notwithstanding.
In the scenario by Brian Miller (with reported, uncredited
rewrites by PRIEST’s Cory Goodman), NASA didn’t abandon the Apollo program
after its 17th mission due to budgetary concerns, as everyone thought. A secret
18th expedition took place in 1974, and an opening title informs us that what
we’re about to see is culled from many hours of footage recently uploaded to
www.lunartruth.com. The team consists of Ben Anderson (Warren Christie) and
Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), who touch down on the moon’s surface in the lander,
and John Grey (Ryan Robbins), who remains in the orbiter. And that’s pretty
much all you get to know about them, beyond a few glimpses of their
personalities in early clips showing them with their families and preparing for
the flight. The most memorable discussion between them on the way to their
landing is a raunchy anecdote (necessary in all movies these days, apparently)
about how one guy once got jalapeño acid on his genitals.
Once they arrive at their destination, what begins as a
routine if unusually secretive mission quickly goes south, in ways that recall
the plots of both ALIEN and THE THING. The “secretive” part is familiar too,
and is developed in conventional ways that don’t fully exploit the topicality
of the times (beyond one of the men dropping a quick reference to Watergate).
For the first two acts, what tension there is is generated through the way López-Gallego
exploits the claustrophobic, confined space of the module and the arid, lonely
surface of the moon, as editor Patrick Lussier actively cuts among the many
lenses’-eye-views to distract from the fact that nothing of great dramatic
interest is going on. The most notable members of the technical team, though,
are sound designers/editors Wylie Stateman and Harry Cohen, who create an
evocative audioscape of snaps, crackles and beeps and assorted ominous noises.
How you respond to APOLLO 18 before its action really gets
cooking will depend on how much you enjoy the vérité horror style in general.
If you’re not into it, you’ll likely lose patience well before the movie
reaches its horrific point; this reviewer found it at least watchable, if not
especially engrossing, along that way. All three of the lead actors have
extensive TV experience, in and outside the horror/sci-fi genres (Owen was
Henry Jones Sr. in THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES), and credibly embody
guys who are both Everymen and skilled astronauts, even if they aren’t given
distinctive personalities. Like the classic killer-extraterrestrial sagas cited
above, APOLLO 18 is a movie that attempts to define its characters by the way
they respond to the threat they face, though even then, they’re not given much
to do except suffer or express varying degrees of concern and panic.
The threat itself does have its moments, though, and
López-Gallego effectively teases with hints of its nature and fleeting glimpses
before giving us a few (though effectively brief) better looks as the action
reaches its climax. Movies of this documentary-style type in general tend to be
exercises in long buildups to scary payoffs, and APOLLO 18 can be said to
succeed in getting you to jump or cringe once things eventually get really bad
for its imperiled astronauts. In Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13, Tom Hanks as Jim
Lovell describes a session in a lunar-module simulator as “three hours of
boredom followed by seven seconds of sheer terror”; adjust both feelings so
they’re a little less harsh, and you’ve got the experience of watching this
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