Monday, September 19, 2011

Space, the Final Frontier

I'm not afraid to admit that there was a time at which I was excited to see Apollo 18. Back in February, when the film was scheduled to be released only a month later, I remember seeing a poster for it hanging in my local multiplex and wondering what the heck this movie studio wanted to tell us was the reason we never went back to the Moon. I didn't see any trailers for a while afterward, as the film's release date was constantly pushed back from March 4'th to July 8'th to to next January 13'th and BACK again to September 2'nd. In the meantime my friend Brian posted the official trailer online, followed by actual cinemas following suit. This is how I discovered that Apollo 18 was a "found footage" horror film, the space variant of a genre that has seen regular admittance to movie theaters since 1999's The Blair Witch Project. After some initial excitement, I began to get worried. Constant delays in the release aside, it has long been a horror film staple that a franchise only goes to outer space when it's on its last legs. Critters 4. Jason X. Hellraiser: Bloodline. Leprechaun 4. Outer space is where horror series go to die, and while Apollo 18 is not part of a dedicated franchise, its voyage outside the limits of our gravity well indicates some thought on the whole found footage genre, that it's only one poorly-attended Paranormal Activity sequel away from oblivion or worse, direct-to-DVD relegation.

The film quality is only underdone by the story quality
Anyone with access to Wikipedia knows that Apollo 17 was the last official manned mission to the Moon, launched and successfully completed back in 1972. Due to budgetary issues, there would be no more Apollo missions, a constant struggle that this year ended NASA's shuttle program. But back in the 70's, Apollo 18 would have you believe that there was a top-secret reactivation and launch of one last Moon mission. Funded by the Department of Defense, the crew was to not only follow the normal Moon landing requirements (picking up rocks, driving the Lunar Lander, etc) but also to set up motion trackers as a warning to the US of possible Communist attack. Despite these wonderfully eyebrow-raising mission parameters, the three crew members are happy just with the prospect of going to the Moon, a place they thought they'd never get to see in person. Unfortunately things go wrong, as they do in films like this, and the footage we see has been somehow recently discovered and edited into a 90-minute motion picture.

You should see the other guy
Of course, if you're Bob Weinstein claiming that this is footage is completely found and not shot in Vancouver with real actors, you should actually get people who aren't immediately recognizable to dedicated film and TV audiences. British actor Lloyd Owen at least has been obscured by a largely theatrical background, but even he might be remembered as Indy's father in the TV show The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Warren Christie however is already becoming a household name thanks to the Syfy original show Alphas and fans of Battlestar Galactica will recognize both him and final star Ryan Robbins from their expansive cast of performers. At least these are quality actors, especially Owen, who is utterly convincing (SPOILER) as both a committed mission commander and an alien-infected madman. (END SPOILER) Christie holds the position of the film's lead and is fairly strong in the right places. He's the one through whose eyes we're seeing the events unfold, and as the film trudges along its nonsensical plot, we can at least appreciate the trials of the men before us. Tacked on, scenes following Robbins as the pilot of the Command Module orbiting the Moon are little more than cuts between short distances of time on the Moon itself.

He's made a SPECIAL friend... inside his helmet...
Another good idea is to remember that you're supposedly dealing with 1970's film footage and to remember the limitations of that. At times the film quality feels too current, spoiling the experience with film that looks too smooth and detailed to be anything resembling old-school technology. While the few special effects do a good job of incorporating themselves into the live action, there are more than a few scenes where director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego tries to express that things are going wrong by subtly shifting debris in the background of shots. He then realizes this is TOO subtle for most audiences an intentionally brightens small areas to draw our eyes so that we can be surprised by this small movement. It would be clever if it weren't so damned ineffective; the result is neither chilling nor even remotely suspenseful as the smarter people in the audience (what audience there is) quickly grow bored of being told where to look.

Dude, maybe you should get that looked at...
Still, the story behind Apollo 18 isn't horrible, only terribly mediocre. Very slow pacing means that a film that clocks in at only an hour and a half feels twice as long, and most of that time spent (especially the first hour) is aimless and wandering to the point of boring. It's the film's last act that does eventually redeem the film, but by then too much time has passed to really care about it. Despite a solid acting core, there's simply no good reason to pay money and see Apollo 18 in theater, especially since even a mediocre box office has already turned it into a financial success. The worst thing I can say about this title is that Apollo 18 didn't need to be a found footage film. While several titles get good mileage from the medium (including 2010's The Last Exorcism), this is a film that does not gain any benefits and even suffers a few setbacks because of how it is shot. The story only superficially uses the material involved, and there's no reason the filmmakers could not have made a straight sci-fi horror film on a small budget and been as successful. Destined to be forgotten, Apollo 18 might be worth stopping to watch it on television or renting on DVD, but only because you won't have recalled how poor it actually is.

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