Dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego
Film #23 of The ‘Worst’ of Cinema
Particularly with the horror genre, once a popular film springs into existence, many other movies trying to replicate its ideas or tropes are made afterwards – slasher films, ‘torture porn’, and with this review’s film, the found footage sub-genre. Once a certain amount of these films are released however, the public become sick of many of them and many are dismissed. This is even more the case with the found footage sub-genre as its basic concept can be done as cheaply as possible, as can be attested with Paranormal Activity (2007), a low budget independent production that became a box office smash. This issue with a sub-genre becoming bloated is a pretty justifiable reason for reviewing a film like Apollo 18, which got many negative reviews when it was released. This film is certainly not a cheap looking cash-in however, and proved to be an immense surprise.
Officially, the last manned mission to the Moon by the United States was Apollo 17, but what we see is the footage of the secret Apollo 18 launch, following two astronauts as they land on the Moon’s surface. As the edited together footage, taken from numerous pieces of NASA equipment, goes on however it becomes apparent that the Moon is not merely a dead satellite surrounding our planet. It is disconcerting that Apollo 18 has been dismissed as much as it has, maybe taking into consideration that I have not seen many films within the current trend of found footage films. Yes, the obvious issue one asks is how this footage could have been recovered and accessed to, but this is an abstract scenario to merely allow the film’s story to take place, suspension of disbelief as with many films for them to work. The potential issues with the accuracy of the filmic equipment used has to be pushed away as well as pointless pedantic questioning when the real core of the film is beyond this.
The found footage sub-genre has been off-putting for me until now, mainly because I have had no interest and that, after my hope that it would be the Bela Tarr film of the sub-genre that forced viewers to watch quiet rooms for unbearable periods only to jump off their seats when the jolt took place, the first Paranormal Activity was such an utter disappointment, fast forwarding through the recorded footage up to the jump scares, defeating the point of them, and being utterly generic. I yet can see the potential in the sub genre, having admired The Blair Witch Project (1999). Seeing Cannibal Holocaust (1980) the day before this one for the first time cements the power this concept has, not only in the content of that film, but that it’s film-within-a-film nature is not only meta but evokes experimental cinema, particularly Owen Land’s Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc (1966), effectively using the ends and waste materials of celluloid itself and turning it into moving images themselves. Apollo 18, whether it was done with heavy post production work or was made with actual vintage equipment, evokes a material nature to the film image, the image distorted, moving and bending, and because of the lunar environment, not of the quality of a clean image let alone considering this film is set in the seventies and with its technology that was available then. While I have not handled NASA quality camera equipment in my life, to my knowledge, my volunteer work in my personal life has lead me to handle Super 8 and Standard 8 film, home movies and documents, for sorting out for filing information about them to viewing the contents. To see the scratches, the discolouration (and saturation of even preserved film), and the material nature of these capturings of real people and their lives has both effected me, even though I am happy with my digital DVDs, and emphasised how unnatural the concept of the recorded film is even if it’s a documentary. Apollo 18 may get almost festishistic with its distorted, faded film and white noise, but this fragmented collage of various pieces of footage in various states, even down to the varying frame sizes, breaks to pieces what film means. Unlike a Paranormal Activity which feels like amateur actors performing in front of cheap digital cameras, this has an ominous mood to it, of viewing something that shouldn’t be viewed and has the wear and tear, and blood, to show what has been done to it and the unfortunate astronauts who become more and more concerned with what their mission entails.
The concept of the film itself, set on the Moon, is inspired too. For most of us who can only see it as a distant object in the sky, the Moon has provoked the human imagination in many ways with its unearthly appearance. It is not as fantastical as, say, Fritz Lang’s Woman In The Moon (1929), but in trying to create an accurate depiction of space travel, thanks to applaudable set design, Apollo 18 makes reality itself hyper fantastical in the look of the machines that propel people off the Earth and the bulbous space suits needed to breath and function on the satellite. The Moon’s surface itself as depicted in the film, barren, grey, atmosphere-less rock of disjointed pits and hills, is unreal, and as this film taps into, utterly terrifying in its silence and endlessness. If there is a major flaw with the film it is that there are moments where it falls back occasionally onto tired clichés expected of modern horror films– blood red eyes, disjointed faces and such techniques without spoiling the film – but it doesn’t detract from the sense of isolation felt. Even if the main force could be seen as ridiculous, having willingly had it spoilt for me before getting interested in the film, this fantastical explanation is acceptable as another abstract needed to make the film work, but one that adds a freakish edge of potential body horror and the concepts of basic evolution at the lowest levels, and what that would actually mean to the poor human being who interacts with the later. Before the horror is revealed, thought the film plays its hand too quickly with clues in the beginning, it already pushes a nerve wracking tone because of the period it is set, bringing into itself the Space Race between the US and Soviet Cosmonauts, and the paranoia that was evoked in the period’s pop culture. Filmed in such a disarming and self questioning form and Apollo 18 is stepped in an oppressive tone.
Again, I was expecting a bad film like the reviews said it was, but like Halloween II (2009) and even Jack & Jill (2011), I have to wonder what environment and mindset the film critics that usually dismiss these films have and how it affects and colours how they see cinema. An overrated film like Paranormal Activity is minor in a sub-genre whose soul is something as repulsively compelling as Cannibal Holocaust, and while Apollo 18 is its own entity completely detached from the Ruggero Deodato film, it retains the dissective tone of a film being many films within itself and its setting adds a hopeless environment to escape from that taps into the sense that, like the Amazon jungle of Cannibal Holocaust, man is a small creature in a much wider existence. Despite its flaws, the film has a quality to it which completely goes against the notion of the found footage sub-genre being a cheap way to churn a film out. That the film has to go against itself by pretending to be real but having end credits may be an accidental virtue, emphasising the fact that, as film, cinema that appears to be real is actually fake, tricking the eyes and mind, and what appears to be fake is actually real.