It may be time to put a moratorium on "found-footage" movies. Cannibal Holocaust started the movement, The Blair Witch Project upped the ante, and Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity are nice additions to the genre, but Apollo 18 is a step backward. Billed as footage recovered from NASA's secret Apollo 18 mission, the film takes place aboard the Freedom Command/Service Module and its lunar lander as a crew of three travels to the Moon and experiences some unnatural phenomena. Apollo 18 nails its '70s, government-issue look with grainy, desaturated lunar images, but the proceedings quickly grind to a halt despite the film's interesting premise.
In December 1974, astronauts Nate Walker (Lloyd Owen), Ben Anderson (Warren Christie) and John Grey (Ryan Robbins) embark on top secret Department of Defense mission Apollo 18 to place missile detectors on the moon to guard against USSR attacks. Grey remains in orbit aboard the Freedom, while Walker and Anderson take the Liberty Lunar Module to the moon's surface. The pair plants the detectors and takes soil samples but begins to notice interference and unexplained movement in their equipment. Soon after, the men discover strange footprints and an empty Soviet lander with traces of blood inside.
Apollo 18 saw its release date pushed back several times before limping into theaters last September with little accompanying marketing. Even so, the lunar setting seemed ripe for eerie tension and jolting scares. Unfortunately, Apollo 18 is mostly a bore. Director Gonzalo López-Gallego, making his English-language debut, nails the film's intended look by mimicking the images of period-appropriate cameras, but these stationary, low-resolution shots lead to much squinting. One camera is located outside the parked lunar lander and is set to detect motion, but even this view is unimpressive, as it is often difficult to tell if anything is actually happening.
The best thing about Apollo 18 is its stark disconnect from Earth. NASA is but a voice over the radio, and the film excels at making the astronauts feel completely alone. The divide between the men on the surface and Grey above in orbit is also deep. When communications are disrupted, instructions from NASA are ignored and tension rises among the astronauts. The acting is just OK, and it seems like the men playing the astronauts tried a bit too hard to make their performances feel improvised. The men also lack the chemistry that must come from experiencing the rigorous training for a space mission together.
Since Apollo 18 is technically a horror film, the bits of intriguing drama are not enough to keep it from spinning off course. I am not sure what I wanted the film's big reveal to be, but the answers Apollo 18 provides are unsatisfying. Perhaps the film gives too much explanation, as what little tension there is quickly dissipates when the unknown becomes known. Mostly, though, Apollo 18 is 86 minutes of two astronauts walking around the lunar surface and sleeping in the lunar lander. In space, no one can hear you snore.
It is difficult to rate the high-definition transfer for Apollo 18. The 1080p/AVC-encoded image shifts from a 1.33:1 aspect ratio to a 1.78:1 ratio depending on the scene, and the picture is deliberately rough around the edges. The image is supposed to appear grainy, fuzzy and occasionally washed out, and the Blu-ray replicates this look. The Blu-ray's image is far from demo material, but the disc is technically stable.
While the image stays in tune with 1970s technology, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is impressive in 2012. A lot of the film's mood depends on the audio, and the Blu-ray's soundtrack features some nice directional effects. The LFE comes alive during an early rocket launch, and the not-so-quiet vacuum of space spreads throughout the sound field. Dialogue is as clear as the filmmakers intended, and effects often pan through the surround speakers. The film's few effective scares are benefited by the track's solid range. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Starz/Anchor Bay releases Apollo 18 in "combo pack" format. The standard Blu-ray case houses the Blu-ray and a DVD copy of the film, as well as an insert with a code to download a digital copy. Extras are light but moderately interesting. First up are a slew of deleted and alternate scenes (20:27), a few of which hint at a different direction that the film might have taken as it progressed. The alternate endings (4:41) offer several takes on the theatrical ending, and at least one is more effective. The Blu-ray also includes an audio commentary from Director Gonzalo López-Gallego and Editor Patrick Lussier that was recorded before the film sat on the shelf for almost a year. The pair seems excited about the unique setting, and discusses the filmmaking process, the actors and the alternate footage.
Although found-footage films are often at home in the horror genre, it may be time to give the gimmick a rest. Apollo 18 follows three astronauts aboard a secret 1974 mission to the Moon that goes awry. The otherworldly setting is spoiled by a lack of tension and an ultimately silly reveal, and Apollo 18 ends up a bore. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.