As a rule, “found footage” films are cop-outs. They use the conceit to sweep all manner of celluloid sins under the rug. We don’t need good quality equipment or writing or acting or anything because this All Really Happened, Guys. We don’t even need anything scary to happen, because shaking the camera around a lot and screaming is supposed to create all the atmosphere we need. This is crap, and it has been since the overhyped run-up to The Blair Witch Project, for which — full disclosure — I was in the front row of the premiere showing at the Charles Theater in Baltimore.
Now in Blair Witch, some mildly creepy things happened, and the filmmakers got a bit of milage by actually scaring the actors themselves. Nobody really tried too hard with the pretense after that until the dreadful Paranormal Activity series, which is changing up its third installment by having something actually happen. And now producer Timur Bekmambetov and the Weinsteins bring us Apollo 18, or “Blair Witch in space”.
The story goes that after the United States terminated the Apollo program after Apollo 17, they flew one last super-secret mission for the Department of Defense. Crewed by Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), Lunar Module pilot Benjamin Anderson (Warren Christie), and Command Module pilot John Grey (Ryan Robbins), they were to land near the lunar south pole to deploy some sort of machinery.
But after Walker and Anderson land, things start going wrong. Power blips and interference show up across the footage being captured by about a dozen film and video cameras. Then they find a Soviet-made LK lander, along with a dead cosmonaut in a crater nearby. And then things start getting weird.
To say that the whole setup is preposterous is putting it mildly. The Russians never finished the N-1 rocket, which would have been the equivalent of the Saturn V, and so they couldn’t have gotten an LK to the moon in the first place. The idea that another Apollo mission could have gone unnoticed is even less believable; even if they create a cover story to explain the launch of a Saturn V, and even if the Russians were in on the plan, any number of amateur and professional astronomers would easily notice a satellite heading for lunar orbit, even if they weren’t particularly looking for it. And I won’t go into exactly where the film leaves off, but there is absolutely no explanation of how all this footage managed to get back to Earth to be edited down into a movie. I hate to say it, but I could sooner believe that Apollo 11 did some secret exploration than this story.
The thing is, this isn’t really a bad idea, and the “found footage” conceit for once isn’t being used to cut every corner in sight. If something weird were found on the moon by an Apollo mission, it would be recorded by exactly this sort of equipment; definitely not by 3-D high-definition cameras. And the filmmakers did put in a lot of attention to detail, getting a lot right about how the Lunar Module and other equipment looked. The one physical detail they really seem to have screwed up on is gravity, which is ironic since that’s one of the biggest points of contention among conspiracy theorists who deny the moon landings took place at all.
So why, then, with a decent premise, good production values, and capable actors, do Bekmambetov and the Weinsteins insist on the pretense that this really is found footage from a secret Apollo mission? All the most gaping of its plot holes come down to the fact that this story doesn’t remotely hold together as part of actual reality. And if you really want to get people to believe you, don’t add non-diagetic sound effects, don’t add obvious post-processing to the film, and definitely don’t hire actors with recurring roles on multiple SyFy-produced television shows.
Or, better yet, do all of these things. Make a good movie with an unconventional visual and auditory aesthetic; tweak it gently for effect at the high points; tie in with a vault of supporting background material, like that at the currently-overloaded “lunartruth.org”; and be proud of a job well done. All this pretense tells me is that you think I’m a drooling moron.
Worth It: hard to say. The marketing is insulting, but the product isn’t bad. Just don’t believe a word of it.
Bechdel Test: fail.