Monday, September 5, 2011

A few chills aside, "Apollo 18" bores

Apollo 18 (2011)
86 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: C -

Edited from eighty-four hours of recovered footage, "Apollo 18" is the true story of NASA launching a top-secret lunar mission in December of 1974, two years after Apollo 17 supposedly wrapped up America's moon program. The authentic raw footage was uploaded to and now being packaged for nationwide movie audiences. Now, if you come back to Earth, "Apollo 18" is really just another faux found-footage item with its own writer (newcomer Brian Miller) and a director (Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo López-Gallego). It's as if the filmmakers said, "This found-footage subgenre isn't hard to pull off, and outer space hasn't been done yet. Let's just make 'The Blair Witch Project' or 'Paranormal Activity'…in space. Because as 'Alien' told us, nobody can hear you scream." 

Launched towards the moon, Commander Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen) and Captain Benjamin Anderson (Warren Christie) begin a study of the natural satellite's surface, while their colleague, Lieutenant Colonel John Grey (Ryan Robins), remains in orbit. After gathering rock samples, the two men come across an abandoned but blood-stained Soviet lander. Then they find inhuman footprints leading into a dark crater ("These steps are not human," Anderson asserts), the American flag they planted goes missing, and after "something" crawls into his helmet, a bloodshot-eyed Walker isn't quite himself. What's in those moon rocks? And will this mission end the same fateful way the Soviet mission did? 

Houston, we have a problem: "Apollo 18" is all slow-burn wind-up and no real liftoff. Directed by López-Gallego, hopes for matching the intriguing concept go unmet in the ineffective execution. For a good chunk of its running time, the movie is appreciably quiet in its build-up but never pulls us in. Be it a fair critical point or not, it just never has that palpable "you-are-there" feeling like its comparably more disquieting found-footage predecessors, which were set in ordinary places, that a disconnect is formed between the viewer and what's happening on screen. Loud shrieks, jarring cuts, and grainy hand-held camerawork all try to get our attention, but the effect becomes boring, annoying, and unconvincing. Miller's screenplay, inscrutably winning director Timur Bekmambetov's contest, sparingly introduces its three fictional characters. In a bookended prologue and epilogue to the footage, Walker, Anderson, and Grey are shown happily in their Earth homeostasis with their wives before liftoff. But in space, the men become such interchangeable helmet-heads that it's hard to feel anything by the end. 

Granted, credit should be given where credit is due. Cinematographer José David Montero seamlessly pulls off the grainy blend of archival footage with the "lost" footage. Also, there are a few effective jump scares (one including a strobe camera and the finding of a dead cosmonaut) and some indelibly creepy images, one being a clear, clean shot of the parasitic "something" crawling into Walker's helmet. This "found footage" purports to be the reason why "we've never gone back to the moon," but it should've stayed lost for one reason alone: "Apollo 18" is such a rocky bore to sit through. 

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