RogerBW's Blog

Apollo 18 17 April 2014

2011, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego, Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen: IMDb / allmovie

The found-footage story of the secret final Apollo mission in 1974.

The found-footage format isn't my favourite. OK, I despise it. And poor reviews of this film when it came out meant I didn't bother to see it until now.

The opening is excellent, blending stock footage from real Apollo missions with modern supplemental material. They don't blend very well together; the modern stuff is just too clear and crisp. I can see that sticking with authentic footage quality might have put off audiences, but I still think it's a shame that the transition is so obvious. On the other hand, stylistically this section is otherwise very good, with the low budget keeping the sets authentically bare.

And to a space geek like me, the LEM is remarkably spacious, with plenty of room for two astronauts to get suits on and off and move around. Did they not bother to do the research? Seems unlikely; they got the LK (Лунный корабль, which I'm putting in only because hey, I'm cooking with UTF-8 these days) not entirely wrong (though, um, it only ever had room for a single cosmonaut, and this would be obvious from looking at it as it's only around two-thirds the height of an LM, so maybe this is meant to be a two-man development of that vehicle, but but but…). So this must be a deliberate change for ease of filming (and so that Horrible Things can happen to astronauts when they're not in their suits).

There's lots of sinister footage from automated cameras, very much in the style of Paranormal Activity and alas similarly ineffective in generating a sense of tension. We know it's a horror film and so we know that something horrible's going to happen; the only question is when.

The film falls all too neatly into three acts: the initial mission up to the discovery of the LK, the escalating complication and failed attempt to launch, and the final action sequence when all the cool skiffy stuff goes out of the window and it becomes pure horror. Low-budget horror, of course, which means we only get a few small flashes of the monsters, one big effects shot, and lots more suggestive camerawork. And it means predictable surprise twists which we can see coming miles off, particularly the ending.

In the end it falls between two stools. It could have been a science-fictional "reconstruction" of a space mission that never happened, or it could have been a horror film in space, but it's too horrory to be a reconstruction and too reconstructy to be a horror film for a modern audience to enjoy. Gonzalo López-Gallego, you are not Ridley Scott and you haven't made Alien.

Too horrory: we barely get to know the crew, or to feel their excitement about walking on the Moon dammit, before bad things start to happen to them; the astronauts are completely incurious about the reason for NASA sending motion-activated cameras with them on the Moon until it's far too late; and the final act is pure action-horror with no scientifictional interest at all.

Too reconstructy: if the footage got back to Earth, someone must have survived, which takes down the tension level right from the start; and the first half-hour is basically free of horror elements, reminding me of the first Star Trek film that similarly polarised fans between the ones who enjoyed long effects sequences and the ones who wanted to get on with the action.

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I have to write it off as an interesting but unsuccessful experiment. If you're not a horror fan, turn it off after the first scene at the LK and you'll have seen the good stuff. If you are, that's where you should start paying attention.

Thanks to Meg Wood for putting me back on to this one. The Flick Filosopher had a far more negative view than mine.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:13am on 17 April 2014

    The Flick Phillosopher raises a question "why aren't we annoyed that it's 40 years since we went to the moon?"

    Sadly, the answer is really simple. The romantic urge to explore was exploited by the Cold War prestige game; its last hurrah was the cost-ineffective Shuttle, and since then Western governments have lacked a motive to spend the money. The Russian programme has limped along because it helps them keep their rocketry infrastructure going, and they can get some money from the West for it.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:23am on 17 April 2014

    Indeed. And there isn't the initial launcher design work being passed on "free" from newer and shinier ballistic missiles.

    I was too young to notice the serious rivalry phase; the first space mission I was really aware of was ASTP. I don't know to what extent the race to the Moon was sold to the public as "we [USA] are better than those filthy commies" as opposed to "we [humans] can do really nifty stuff". The latter is what I picked up later, and the aftermath of it is I think what generates outrage now.

    It may therefore be a generational thing. To most people watching films now, going to the Moon might as well be science fiction.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 10:34am on 17 April 2014

    Well, I was 8 at the time of Apollo 11, so I wasn't seeing the Cold War subtext, nor do I expect that it was much talked about. I doubt anyone under about 65 now was seeing how the political aspects worked with the romance. And there probably were about as many of them at the time as there are now who can see that everything is currently being structured around benefiting the wealthy.

  4. Posted by Meg at 01:00am on 19 April 2014

    I'm surprised you thought the LEM looked spacious -- I thought they did a good job of making it seem as cramped as it really would be, while still allowing for room for them to move around on camera. But your complaint about the flip into horror mode is similar to the complaints I was reading online from critics -- for a horror movie, it's too slow getting started; for a space sci-fi movie, too many people get eaten.

    Personally, I still don't feel like this IS a horror movie. To me, it was a sci-fi movie about aliens that aren't friendly -- very similar, in that regard, to Europa Report (which you did like, right?). I totally see your points, though, and that IS actually something that has really bugged me about a couple of other similar sci-fi movies -- Sunshine and Event Horizon (especially the latter). For both those two, the sci-fi half was so great and so FUN and then out of the blue, BAM, it's friggin' Hellraiser out there!

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 08:10am on 19 April 2014

    The thing is, I've seen enough LM footage to know that basically it wasn't possible to move around inside them at all. Yes, all right, they did carry hammocks (from Apollo 12 onwards), but there wasn't enough space during simulations for a third person to squeeze in there with them. If someone hadn't watched as much mission footage as I have, fair enough; for me it just looks wrong. (And hey, claustrophobia's a valid thing to use in a horror film, isn't it?)

    I don't mind either the slow start or the people getting eaten (I'm not a huge horror fan but I can enjoy it if I'm in the right mood); I think maybe it's the lurching gear change between the two that causes the problem. Contrast Alien: there's an effective sense of menace from the start (the whole Paranormal Activity-style camera thing really doesn't do it for me), so while the change is genuinely shocking, there isn't that sudden sense of having got the next reel of a different film.

    I have a review in the stack for The Last Days on Mars and that has a similar problem.

  6. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:23pm on 19 April 2014

    The LEMs from Apollo 18 and 19 are both in museums, one of them was refurbished and used for filming parts of Apollo 13 and the follow up From The Earth to the Moon series (seriously recommended, a 1 hour programme per Apollo mission virtually, I have the DVD boxset). So there was no need to mock up a LEM and certainly no excuse for getting the size wrong. It is indeed very cramped, there is barely room for the two astronauts to get past each other.

    As for the LK, one of those exists but is in very poor condition. What struck me in the pictures online and the TV camera that went in is how primitive and spartan the LK is compared to the LEM, and how incredibly cramped. This is because of launch weight problems. To use a bigger LK you basically have to assume either that the N1 rocket was finally made to work, or they used two Protons and rendez vous in earth orbit before trans lunar injection.

  7. Posted by RogerBW at 08:38am on 20 April 2014

    There was a two-crew LK proposed, but I'm not aware of any detailed design studies still less actual metal. Even riding on an N1 it would have been horribly marginal.

    Please lend me the DVDs.

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