Sunday, September 4, 2011

Apollo 18: "A-"

Russian poster for Apollo 18,
where it apparently was first released!
To celebrate a long weekend together, Mockingbird and I decided to take in a movie (among other things), and since we were looking for more of a popcorn flick than art film, we decided to check out Apollo 18. The film’s premise is pretty straightforward: after Apollo 17, the last official moon mission, NASA and the Department of Defense sent another Apollo mission to the moon, this time in secret. Ostensibly there to set up a series of early-warning devices to detect a Soviet nuclear ballistic missile launch against the US, the intrepid three-man crew discovers… something else.

I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised by the film. The back-story is that the audience is watching an edited version of some eighty-five hours of video files recently uploaded to (which, in a further touch, has apparently been “blocked,” making it unavailable), exposing the mission, so all of the film is ostensibly from the cameras aboard the Apollo module and lunar lander, as well as a battery of hand-held and spacesuit-mounted 16mm cameras, and some tripod-mounted automatic cameras which the astronauts set up here and there. This leads to one of the more brilliant aspects of the film, as it has been meticulously made to appear as if it was actually shot using this equipment, and the film “stock” has been appropriately aged to give it an early 1970s unrestored archival look. The viewable area of the theater screen is even cropped to a square area with rounded corners to further the effect of watching old 16mm film. The technical work done here is astounding, as is the films attention to detail in recreating the living conditions of the Apollo astronauts in what were truly tiny metal shells fully equipped with such delicacies as “ham paste.”

In a nice change from frantic SF pacing, the movie builds slowly and evenly, ratcheting up the tension through several seeming climaxes which serve only to wind things a bit tighter still. It is as much a psychological thriller as it is an alien menace piece, and director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego does a brilliant job of using the strange mix of claustrophobic spacecraft and utterly inhospitable lunar space to work on both the astronauts and the audience. I was also pleased to see lead actor Warren Christie, who can also be seen weekly on SyFy’s Alphas, get some big-screen time, and prove that he has the chops to be there. Christie brilliantly portrays the deep confusion and mistrust of a young career military officer who has been badly shaken by the Watergate scandal, reminding the audience that the film is set in a time when the now habitual mistrust of the American government on the part of its citizens was only just beginning to take root, and betrayal by that government was as unexpected as it was bitter.

I give Apollo 18 an “A-” over-all, however, because there were unfortunately times when the close-ups of frantic astronauts had me thinking “Look, it’s Blair Witch in Space!” but that has more to do with brief visuals than writing, directing, acting, or overall cinematography. Also, there remains the somewhat glaring plot-hole of just exactly how the footage from the hand-held and suit cameras made it back to Earth! Overall though, Apollo 18 is a thoughtful thriller that relies on acting and artistry to achieve its chills, and takes the time to build a real story rather than endless shrapnel-filled explosions and plucky-humans-against-evil-aliens clichés. Go see it.

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