Apollo 18 was directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego (Open Grave, Backdraft 2), written by Brian Miller (Paracusia) and Cory Goodman (The Last Witch Hunter, Priest), and stars Warren Christie (Motive, Land), Lloyd Owen (Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power), and Ryan Robbins (Scorched Earth, Spectral). It’s about a trio of astronauts landing on the moon for a classified mission, only to find that it’s not as benign as it seemed.
The Plot: Found footage stories all tend to resemble each other, with details and setups constructed from the same basic idea that the realities of the basis of these stories are not what we believe them to be. Miller and Goodman don’t change that pattern, but they do lend it some much-needed grandiosity, using Cold War fears and intrigue to make something different for a lot of the movie’s length.
NASA’s “Apollo” missions may have been officially over since 1972, but in 1974 there were still intentions to go back to the moon, although not for any gratification that may be gotten from exploration. Instead, the DoD has called on astronauts Ben (Christie), Nathan (Owen), and John (Robbins) to set up ICBM monitors in case the USSR decides to take a shot at the United States. Justifications for these movies’ plots are normally flimsy, but with the setting being what and when it is, the movie gets off to a strong start, with defence spurring the mission.
Only two of the three men, Ben and Nathan, are tasked with going to the surface of the moon to plant the detectors and are launched in a lander with the intention of residing there for a couple of days and taking samples of the terrain while doing their jobs. While the mission starts smooth, the men notice that things aren’t quite what they expected, with contact to Houston being cut after the discovery of a destroyed Soviet lander, leaving John as their only relay.
The writers of Apollo 18 lift a lot from Alien, with a later twist taken straight from the classic, but the developments between and subsequent struggle against extraterrestrial life are different enough to make the term “rip-off” a misnomer.
Revealing much more beyond the surface would spoil the fun, but Apollo 18 is above average in its usage of historic pretenses, and methods of getting the men moving from their small sanctuary are well-executed for its first two-thirds, only dropping in quality with some rather unnecessary facets to their discovery hindering the final third.
The Characters: Apollo 18’s biggest issue comes from its lack of character; despite the task being easier due to a small cast, the writers still didn’t take the time to develop anyone beyond a couple of brief interviews that introduce the astronauts by name. Interactions between them work up a small bit of reprieve, but the skimping craters (pun intended) any depth to the men.
Ben was skeptical from the start, as the commanders of the Apollo 18 mission had previously cancelled it but are now asking him to join the team out of the blue. Even though he had his doubts about going on the mission, his sheer patriotism and intrigue motivated him enough to take part in a concealed job. Little pieces of backstory come through on occasion, such as his kid recording a message for him over one of the tapes he brought along with him, but anything else is out of the picture.
Nathan doesn’t receive much, he’s just another astronaut. It makes sense for John not to be personalized since he’s not in the lander with the others, but Nathan needed to have something beyond the (admittedly funny) story of the time he got jalapeno powder on his groin and had to dunk his stuff into some milk to stop the stinging pain.
Christie, Owen, and Robbins are all good in their roles, but it’s a big missed opportunity for the movie to not further the relationship since their confined space forces them to be in close proximity to each other at almost all times.
The Horror: It’s no scream-worthy feature, but Lopez-Gallego maintains an unsettling aura here for a long time, much longer than the lower-quality found footage films that proliferated from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s.
From its first frames, Apollo 18 plants paranoia in its viewers as it makes note of the fact that this mission was off the books. While that’s a cliche for movies in the subgenre, the director gets away with that preface since the writers set the movie in a secretive time period, where classification and clandestine operations were almost daily. Soviet interference was always suspected in any situation, and once the astronauts find a lander that no one told them about, the movie’s feeling of uncertainty is exacerbated to a fever pitch.
Also, a boon for Apollo 18, in particular, is its ability to show very little for half of its runtime; with the moon being a barren landscape that’s still hardly been explored to its fullest, the lack of places to go to find shelter from the lifeforms evidently present there emphasizes the isolation the characters face. Help would be several days and multiple millions of dollars away from the characters, so no matter what they face, they have to fend for themselves. It’s not an unheard-of attribute for horror movies, but the ones set in space have an edge by default since the distance from humanity is so much vaster than those set close to or within civilization.
Once the movie begins to show its villain(s), Apollo 18 takes something of a body horror tact, showing the creatures infiltrating the EVA suits and California apartment-sized lander that Ben and Nathan presumed would be safe. This approach would’ve worked for the rest of the movie, but it doesn’t stick, so the conventional scares will only affect those with certain phobias. Either way, the choice feels a little incongruous with the rest of the movie.
The Technics: Falling in line with most of its brethren, this movie didn’t get a huge budget to work with – thankfully – it didn’t need it to sell the setting and aesthetic of its story.
Visually, the movie looks great, era-appropriate, and detailed in its design. Production designer Andrew Neskoromny (Dawn of the Dead, Pacific Rim) and costume designers Kate Main (The Hole, The Tomorrow People), Cynthia Ann Summers (The Butterfly Effect 2, Feed the Gods), and Beverly Wowchuk (Babylon 5: The Lost Tales, Seven Days) do phenomenal jobs at creating an authentic lunar lander and landscape on a low budget. Paired with editing by Patrick Lussier (director of My Bloody Valentine and Trick) and sound design by Harry Cohen (Kill Bill, Aquaman), Apollo 18 is a remarkable recreation of the technology of the 70s, keeping the visuals in accordance with the setting.
Some of this fades though, as the third act opts for a more cinematic approach, ditching the cameras the astronauts brought along and the ones emplaced in their vehicle. The illusion doesn’t shatter completely, but it’s a shame that the style wasn’t maintained.
Holes can easily be poked at some points in Apollo 18, the biggest one is a common question that’s never answered: who recovered the footage, and how? With the reveal of the antagonists, the intelligence of the movie does begin to get questionable too. Another pass at some of the basic questions would’ve fixed these tail-end issues.
Apollo 18 doesn’t do much differently than its peers, but it does just about everything better than them; from the atmosphere to story to scares, it’s a gem of the subgenre, even if it does fall apart in the last third.
Apollo 18 is available on DVD and Digital platforms. And if you’re looking for more films like it, FilmTagger has some suggestions.