Sunday, February 12, 2012

APOLLO 18 - 2011 - ANOTHER FOUND FOOTAGE FRIGHT FLICK FAILURE

“My main gripe with the film is that without the 'found footage' gimmick, Apollo 18 is just another below average horror-in-space story.”
Horror and Science Fiction
Starring - Warren Christie/Ben Anderson, Lloyd Owen/Nate and Ryan Robbins/John Grey
Director - Gonzalo López-Gallego
Writer - Brian Miller
PG-13 - some disturbing sequences and language
1 hr., 26 min.
Let me state right off, that in general, I am not a fan of “found footage” films. Found footage is a genre of film making, used extensively in horror films, in which a film is presented as raw film footage or unedited video recordings. This footage is usually presented as having been discovered left behind by lost or deceased characters. The proceedings onscreen are visualized from the point-of-view of a camera or cameras of one or several of the characters in the film. Unsteady camerawork and damaged or missing footage are also generally used to enhance to realism of the film.
The film credited with popularizing the “found footage” genre is The Blair Witch Project, which was made on a budget of between $500,000 and $750,000 and when released in 1999 grossed $248,639,099 worldwide. Oddly, it wasn’t until 2007 that the found footage genre really took off: Alone with Her, August Underground's Penance, Diary of the Dead, Exhibit A, Head Case, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Paranormal Activity, REC, Redacted and Welcome to the Jungle all were released that year. The financial success of Paranormal Activity, which grossed $193,355,800 worldwide on its meager $15,000 budget (although Paramount/DreamWorks acquired the U.S. rights for $350,000) has inspired two more sequels and many other found footage films since. The more fiscally or critically successful of these include: Cloverfield (2008), Monster (2008), Quarantine (2008), The Last Exorcism (2010), Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), The Troll Hunter (2010) Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) and Chronicle (2012).

The film Apollo 18 purports to be made from 80 hours of footage hidden by NASA of a secret Apollo 18 mission to the Moon in 1974. Commander Nathan Walker, Lieutenant Colonel John Grey and Captain Benjamin Anderson are told they are being sent to the Moon on a secret mission to place detectors there to alert the United States of any impending ICBM attacks from the USSR. Grey remains in orbit aboard the Freedom Command module, while Walker and Anderson land on the moon in the lunar module Liberty. The astronauts plant the detectors and then take some samples of moon rocks. On their second day, Walker and Anderson take a lunar rover to a cratered area and discover that they are not the first or only ones to visit this area of the Moon.
Like all found footage films, it requires the imagination of the viewer to pretend that what he or she is watching is actually real documented footage and not a traditional fictional drama. Unfortunately for me, the first “astronaut” seen in the footage in a pre-flight interview is actor Ryan Robbins as Lieutenant Colonel John Grey. I’m a fan of the SyFy Channel TV program Sanctuary on which the actor Ryan Robbins has played the character of Henry Foss for four seasons, so I was immediately taken out of the idea of Apollo 18 as being real by such a recognizable (by me) actor. Still, I tried to get into it, but the immediate appearance of another actor known to me from TV (Warren Christie who plays Cameron Hicks on SyFy’s Alphas) made it impossible to view Apollo 18 as anything more than just another sci-fi horror film.
All the visual tricks that are used to produce the feel of the footage being made on video from the era or shot on 16mm film are mostly a distraction from telling an interesting story. Technically, the reproduction of the NASA Apollo mission era’s technology, from the ship models to the space suits are excellent, but they are unfortunately marred by the distorted imagery to the point where they could have been done much more cheaply and it may not have been noticeable. Still, as a representation of realistic 1970’s era space travel, it is well done.

My main gripe with the film is that without the “found footage” gimmick, Apollo 18 is just another below average horror-in-space story. The three astronauts in the film are given very little time to develop as real characters, because the film makers are in such a rush to get them to the Moon, where they are to become embroiled in the horrors there. It is impossible to say how disappointing the “horrors” on the Moon are, without spoiling the entire film, but I certainly wasn’t even remotely frightened or even surprised by the big reveal. Only the final scene of the film contained any real feeling of tension or suspense and by then I just wasn’t involved enough with the film to care.
If you are a fan of found footage films, then give Apollo 18 a try. If you are like me and find found footage films to be a tired and overused gimmick, then go watch Alien (1979) or Moon (2009) again.
TECHNICAL: Acting – 7 Directing – 6 Cinematography – 7 Script – 6 Special effects – 8
VISCERAL: Visual – 8 Auditory – 7 Intellectual – 6 Emotional – 6 Involvement – 6
TOTAL RATING: 67


6 comments:

  1. Yes, this was such a disappointment. Great concept but really badly executed. Should have dumped the found footage concept and gone the traditional route.

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  2. Welcome to GUARDIANS OF THE GENRE! Black Planet! You may now consider yourself a Genre Guardian – First Class, which is the rank I bestow on all followers who take the time to post comments here at GOTG! I agree with you that Apollo 18 could have been at least a more dramatically impactful film if it had been shot traditionally. I’m still not so sure that the antagonists in the film would work for me, but maybe with a little more creative writing and direction I could have bought into them as well.

    The reason I spent so much of the beginning of my review explaining my opinions on found footage films and their origin in recent cinematic history is too explain why I the majority of these films don’t affect me on either and intellectual or visceral level. Since most if not all the films shot and presented in this way are horror films or films with horrific elements, then their inability to affect me on an emotional level is a real failure of the film’s part.

    One of the few films that used the found footage approach that I felt was both internally logical and externally emotive was Cloverfield (2008). Part of the reason for Cloverfield’s creative success is that spends the greater part of the first third of the film developing the characters in the film; particularly Rob Hawkens, his best friend Hud and Rob’s girlfriend Beth. These relationships reinforce Rob’s motivations throughout Cloverfield and help to anchor the fantastic premise in persuasive reality. It doesn’t hurt that Cloverfield also had a much larger budget than most found footage films ($25 million compared to Apollo 18’s $5 million).

    Thanks for checkin’ in Black Planet!

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  3. Actually, rather funny you'd give a review of this flick. We went and rented it on the 12th o' Feb.

    While I have to admit I agree with a number of your points, I still very much enjoyed the sets and a lot of the angles and shots they did (which seemed like stock NASA footage). I considered the horrors somewhat forgivable, but the space-tech eye candy was really all I kept good focus on.

    Another gripe I would add, is a possible ignorance on the dev group's part. While oxygen supply was a noted worry in the flick, I failed to notice anyone taking steps to stop exacerbating things by breathing so heavily, and so often. I understand they're scared, but that air supply of a few hours will get cut rather short if you're huffing for a good half-hour.

    And cosmonauts are just damn sexay.

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  4. Thanks for your comments, Joshua! As the co-founder of GUARDIANS OF THE GENRE! I am bestowing you with the honor of Genre Guardian - First Class as well.

    For a found footage feature done on such a small budget (purportedly $5,000,000) the technical authenticity was quite good. It has been a number of years since I’ve watched any of the old footage of the NASA Apollo missions, but some of the shots of the lunar landing and the lunar orbital pictures looked very familiar, so I too assume that some of those shots were stock footage. I found the mystery of the (spoiler) missing cosmonauts to be more interesting and suspenseful than the actual antagonist(s) themselves. Part of my problem with this found footage film is that it brings up some interesting questions – like why were USSR cosmonauts there on a secret mission as well – but because of the singular narrative view (that these events really happened) the filmmakers aren’t allowed to examine the back story of the cosmonauts, or elucidate on the motivations of the USSR for sending their ship to the Moon.

    Not being an astrophysical engineer, but just an amateur astronomy and space nut, I’m not sure about the accuracy of the amount of oxygen being used by the astronauts during their EVA on the Moon’s surface – particularly in regard to excessive consumption during their exploration of the (spoiler) Soviet Lunar Lander – but the astronauts did seem very concerned about it, as well as the colder temperatures in the shadows of the craters, so it seems like scriptwriter Brian Miller tried to get the technical details right.

    I don’t think the cosmonauts in Apollo 18 were very “sexay” – unless of course you’re into necrophilia.

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    1. Haha! No, no. I really just meant cosmonauts in general, and aerospace equipment, though I was terribly vague in that last comment.

      But yes there was a lot of questions the audience would have about the setting that weren't answered. Which can be a good thing; too much too fast and all that can really saturate and denature a story.

      Another interesting issue as to regarding the Soviet lander was how quickly the Russians patched the communications over to Houston, but who knows.

      This film was definitely stong in places and weaker in various spots, but ya' can't blame them; it can be really hard pulling off anything truly suspenseful or interesting with a premise like this. It's like something Dan O'Bannon said about the alien, in that it "can't just sneak in..." Alien horror can be very hard to do right, especially with how genre-savvy people are these days, but I applaud their effort and certainly enjoyed the visuals.

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