Despite stretches of skillfully sustained suspense, “Apollo 18” ultimately comes across as little more than a modestly clever stunt. Helmer Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and first-time scripter Brian Miller aim to infuse fresh life into a familiar scenario by spinning their paranoid tale — in which U.S. astronauts encounter unfriendly life forms on the dark side of the moon during a secret 1974 NASA mission — in the found-footage fashion of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity.” That gimmickry likely won’t be enough to lure massive auds into megaplexes. Still, the small-budget, filmed-in-Vancouver thriller could find a receptive aud on homevid.
“Apollo 18” may resonate especially with viewers old enough to recall watching real lunar landings on TV during the era when the pic purportedly is set.
To be sure, the basic plot already was whiskery by the time Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind back in 1969. But style, not substance, is the main attraction here, and there’s an impressively persuasive verisimilitude to the way Lopez-Gallego and his production team (under the overview of producer Timur Bekmambetov) use a variety of visual tropes — blurry black-and-white video, shaky handheld camerawork, static-interrupted transmissions from inside spacecraft and aboard lunar rovers, faded-color homemovies and “official interviews” — to simulate the look of documentaries about ’60s and ’70s NASA missions.
The pic’s basic conceit is that it has been culled from hundreds of hours of long-classified footage pertaining to a top-secret lunar mission that began in December 1974, and ended quite badly for all parties involved. “Apollo 18” doesn’t begin with opening credits (or even the logo of distrib Dimension Films) but rather with the onscreen claim that, hey, forget everything the government wants you to believe about Apollo 17 being the final U.S.-sponsored interplanetary voyage — this is the real reason why we’ve never gone back to the moon.
While John Grey (Ryan Robbins) steers the command module in orbit around the moon, fellow astronauts Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen) and Benjamin Anderson (Warren Christie) descend to the lunar surface to install what they think are radar scanners. Unfortunately, they discover a Soviet space capsule — and a deceased Soviet cosmonaut — near their landing site. Even more unfortunately, they gradually discover why that cosmonaut is very seriously dead.
“Apollo 18” takes a long time to set up its relatively simple premise, but the visuals are sufficiently intriguing to alleviate boredom. Once the scary stuff kicks in, however, it’s often difficult, and occasionally frustrating, to suss out precisely what’s happening in key scenes as the found-footage flourishes — jump cuts, eruptions of static, swervy camera movements, etc. — get in the way of narrative clarity.
The three lead actors, while reasonably competent, are not nearly charismatic enough to turn their thinly written roles into truly compelling characters. On the other hand, Lopez-Gallego’s decision to offer only fleeting glimpses of the unfriendly life forms — and absolutely no explanation for their inhospitality toward lunar visitors — works to the pic’s advantage by helping to ratchet up the scare factor.
Final scenes provide a suitably exciting and darkly ironic payoff, though some viewers doubtless will question how some of the found footage ever made its way back to earth. Maybe there was an Apollo 19?