Sunday, September 4, 2011

"The Dark Side of The Moon" A review of Apollo 18

So after bumping back the release date a few times, Apollo 18 finally comes to theaters. I was very much excited to see this film when I heard about it. I love anything concerning space travel and the Apollo program, so when I heard there would be a horror movie set during the "secret" Apollo 18 mission in the found footage style ala Paranormal Activity I was on board. So now it's finally out and this is what I thought of it.

There are some major SPOILERS ahead mind you.

To start things off I feel I must point out the fact that I am actually a fan of the Paranormal Activity films. While some have pointed out very credible flaws like the characters aren't all that interesting or annoying, that isn't why I like the films. It's simply about the fact that what the film shows is otherworldly and very unnerving. I am not a heavily spiritual person, I don't believe in ghosts, nor demons for that matter. However that doesn't make the very idea of them any less creepy. Regardless of my beliefs I would never fuck with a Ouija board, because EVERYONE knows that's a bad idea (unless you live in a horror movie). It is that deep seated instinct to fear the unknown that the PA films inspire in me, and in effect grip me in the albeit lacking storyline.

It's the same fear I feel when I watch documentaries of alien encounters (when nothing else is on mind you, I'm not that fanatical) because in the end what is transpiring is so strange and truly "beyond this world" that you can't help but get chills down your spine.

This is what attracted me to Apollo 18, not because it was in the same genre of "found footage horror" but because of the potential fear that the film could've inspired in me.

However this isn't the case, sadly. While the film does succeed in generating a very unnerving atmosphere thanks to its setting it never truly jumps on the opportunity to touch the primal fears we all have. However it doesn't fail completely to deliver on a decent if not cliched plot. The story of the doomed astronauts as they uncover the truth behind the strange incidents on the surface of the moon has some interesting little twists, though nothing genuinely mindblowing (Spoiler: the aliens are moonrocks!!!)

The cast if fairly solid, Ryan Robbins of Stargate Atlantis and Sanctuary fame was a welcome sight as John the Command Module Pilot. However the two primary protagonists in the lunar lander, Ben (Warren Christie) and Nate (Lloyd Owen) are actually rather likable even though most of their material is Apollo technobable and stereotypical fear reactions (the obvious ones being "The government lied to us!" and *scream*). The film's characters suffer from a lack of audience connection as we jump straight to the moon with only a few minutes of post launch banter to build a relationship with the characters. It's one of few flaws in this movie.

One thing I really liked about the film was its fairly accurate presentation of Apollo missions (though I should tell you I am not an expert on the subject). Needless to say, I like the fact that this is all filmed in a way to emulate the style of most reels from the space program during the time. However this also turns out to be the films one major problem. This is because while I don't mind the style or genre or whatever you want to call it, this shouldn't be a found footage film. Had this been an ordinary horror film that used conventional filming this film would've been ten times better (and it would've made more sense, more on that later). While the documentary shots and still camera shots from within and outside the LEM help convey the claustrophobia of the setting, conventional filming could've done that and convey the complete emptiness of the moon (which is ultimately untrue when you realize what's living there). The film does try to do that with some ridiculous attempts at having vista shots and convenient cameras being placed all around in places they wouldn't have cameras. All of which really don't make sense but are necessary to operate within the confines of the style while still having film to work with. This is where Apollo 18 both thrives and withers.

Bear in mind that it is nigh impossible to make a found footage flick "cinematic." Unless the person using the camera is actually a trained cameraman in the story it's more likely that you will be watching the camerawork of every crap youtube video for the next hour and a half. Needless to say, Apollo 18 definitely struggled to keep the illusion that all of this insanity is being recorded all the way through by a myriad of cameras. That's where we find the biggest plot hole that effectively kills the plot. Which is astounding to me, never once in my life have I seen a plot hole that actually killed a movie, and it all hinges on the fact that this is a found footage movie.

This plot hole is encountered in the climax of the movie, after Ben and Nate are forced to abandon the LEM because a delirious Nate, in a fit of alien fever, went on a hammer spree. Before ditching the lander Ben announces that he will gather all the film from the cameras to take back with them (the film we are watching). After crashing their rover on the way to the abandoned Russian lunar lander and losing Nate in a crater full of moon monsters Ben hikes the rest of the way to the Russian lander. He manages to get it working and makes his way back to the command module. The strange fact that there is a camera set within the ABANDONED RUSSIAN LUNAR LANDER (and it's fixed to the wall mind you, you know this because the camera doesn't tumble about in zero gravity as the ship makes it into orbit) is a bit of a stretch however this isn't the plot hole I'm talking about. That happens after you realize that Ben is indeed infected by the alien disease like Nate and is also surrounded by killer moon rocks which levitate into view thanks to the zero gravity. In a fit of insanity, as well as screaming his head off because a bunch of killer moon crabs are eating his face, Ben neglects to put on the brakes and smashes into the command module effectively killing John the CM pilot, himself, and the film all in one go!

You see if there was no return trip to earth how the hell did this footage get to earth? How did it get leaked and subsequently edited into a feature length film?

And since this film is all about "Why we never went back to the moon" it's safe to say there was no 19th mission to recover said footage. So perhaps it would've been better if this were a normal moon monster movie.

Which brings us to the monsters in question. Of what I can say about the creatures in the film, I will say that they are probably the best possible creatures to have live on the moon. The process by which the filmmakers went about coming up with the creatures was surprisingly smart. Had this been done by someone else we probably would've ended up getting some sort of slimy creature like in any other movie, but then I wouldn't buy that as an actual lunar creature. When you think of what's on the moon you think rocks, and that's exactly what the aliens in the film are: they're moon rocks or they look like rocks. While we never really get to see some of the bigger ones clearly (only in small cuts in grainy film reel) they come in many shapes and sizes. To be honest they reminded me of the rock crabs that Jack Sparrow met in Davy Jones Locker in the third Pirates movie, however they're much more menacing when they're space-moon-crabs.

As for scares in the movie, well there aren't that many. The movie relies too heavily on the fact that all of this is being filmed by the astronauts. So you get a lot of first person shots from inside of a dark crater with only brief flashes of clarity and when they happen you now they're resorting to the sickeningly overused jump scare. The only thing the film had working was the overall tense, claustrophobic, isolated atmosphere, however they never utilize it to its fullest.

Needless to say, the movie is another sad story of a film with plenty of potential but not ambition to rise above the usual found footage horror movie tropes. Not that it was bad, it's definitely better than say Conan The Barbarian as you actually like the characters to some degree. It was merely OK. Do I suggest you watch it? Only if you really really like the Apollo program, the Moon, conspiracies, and Ryan Robbins floating around in a tin can for 5 minutes. So it was enough for me to like at least.

I give Apollo 18, 3 killer moon crabs out of 5.

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