I have burning visions of Apollo 18 becoming one of the most misunderstood movies in history. It purports to be the "real story" of why humans never returned to the Moon, and is artfully recreated from footage that looks ripped directly from the mid-1970s motion-capture cameras that supposedly filmed it. Years from now, conspiracy fans will be trading the choicest bits of footage from Apollo 18 on YouTube, fooling millions of people into believing the Moon is anything but empty.
Perhaps anticipating this, the filmmakers have created a website at LunarTruth.com — an URL which is advertised prominently at the beginning and end of the film — which is cleverly vague (unless you click the not-so-hidden Easter Egg, in which case you get the usual viral nonsense). My point is, this movie is a perfect storm for conspiracy lovers online. It has government conspiracy, space conspiracy, 1970s-era military conspiracy, and a supposed conspiracy around the release of the film itself. NASA's public concerns about the film have only fanned the flames, given that Apollo 18 already purports to be censored by the government.
So yes, Apollo 18 is a great attempt to create a new conspiracy theory about a subject that's ripe for it. That leaves the movie feeling more like a thought experiment than a feature film. It's a fun, clever thought experiment, but not one that's going to leave you shivering late at night the way a good horror film should. Light spoilers ahead.
Apollo 18 was produced by scare machine Timur Bekmambetov, and directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, for a low budget used surprisingly well. Much is done with the shadowy, icy lunar craters to heighten tension the old-fashioned way with moody darkness. The acting is understated and terrific — these are highly-trained military men, so it makes sense that they wouldn't panic even in the face of the extreme weirdness they discover. Refreshingly, the movie tries to stick to the kind of realism you'd hope for in a "found footage" story purporting to be a documentary. When the astronauts land on the Moon and start discovering things they don't expect, we don't get to do much exploring of the danger — after all, these guys are running out of air and have very little equipment. They can't go zooming around looking under every rock or digging up the ice at the bottom of a crater. They've got to get back to the capsule.
All that we and they know when they launch is that the Apollo 18 mission is completely secret — this detail picks up on the fact that, in real life, the Apollo 18 mission was planned and then scrapped due to lack of funds. In fine internet troll style, the filmmakers have taken facts and twisted them just enough to make their conspiracy plausible. The astronauts are told that the mission is to place secret surveillance equipment in orbit and on the Moon to spy on the Soviets. But of course this is the 1970s, so once things start to go wrong, it doesn't take long before one guy starts screaming about Watergate, and how if the President could lie to the American people, why couldn't the Department of Defense lie to them about their secret mission?
Like I said, there are a lot of clever details to love here. Setting this in the conspiracy-prone 1970s was a good idea, and the nods to realism set Apollo 18 a cut above. Though the plot isn't anything you haven't seen before, it doesn't insult our intelligence with egregiously bad plotholes. Also, the secret thing the astronauts discover is delightfully pulpy, and reminded me (in a good way) of classic 1930s science fiction.
In some ways, the movie's efforts to stay somewhat realistic were partly what did it in. It would have worked brilliantly as a short, or maybe as a series of web virals, but it just didn't deliver enough in-depth scifi madness to keep us on the edges of our seats. There are long, boring stretches where the astronauts are just sort of walking around and breathing, or telling each other lame stories while squashed in the lander capsule. Given all the tension, I was hoping for the guys to find something really mind-blowing that has major political implications for Earth. While what they find is creepy, it's just not the kind of thing that would inspire multiple government cover-ups. So the payoff, while nifty, is kind of a let-down.
Apollo 18 certainly isn't as cheesy as the Hellraiser movie that was set in space, or Jason X, which was also a generic horror flick pasted onto a space backdrop. But it shares with those movies a basic problem, which is that seeing horror tropes done in space doesn't necessarily make them scarier or more exciting. In fact, during Apollo 18, I found myself counting all the "horror movie trope . . . in spaaaaace!" jokes I could make. Hey, it's the fast-moving-demon-face-twitchy-twitch - in space! Hey, it's the scritchy sound outside - in space! Hey, it's the scary unexpected thing suddenly appearing out of the darkness - in space! Hey, it's the "we're totally alone in this isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere" - in space!
All that was missing was a bunch of dangerous hillbillies driving up in a ghostly Moon buggy, blasting White Zombie and wearing clown makeup. Actually, there really was that too. It would be too spoilery to tell you more, but trust me — it happens.
So if you're looking to be scared witless this weekend, Apollo 18 may not be the ticket. But if you want to freak out your conspiracy-loving friends, take them to see it and tell them that it's totally real. I guarantee that they will believe it. I'm not sure whether that's means Apollo 18 is good, or just good at fooling people. Yes, there is a difference.