The central claim of Apollo 18 is that it is entirely documentary footage stolen from the NASA archives and leaked to the internet in 2011, then cut together to form the film. There was no official Apollo 18 mission to the moon, and the film asks why manned missions to the moon ended with the Apollo 17 mission. It more than suggests the reason was the discovery of small, parasitic aliens who look almost identical to moonrocks and the clandestine Apollo 18 mission, used by the Defense department and the Kennedy administration as a scientific experiment on the effects of being contaminated by these extraterrestrial creatures. While it is fairly obvious the film was not authentic footage (for one thing the alien creatures are clearly CGI), the production goes to great lengths to convince you it is, employing all of 21st century computer technology to mirror the audio and visual feel of a 70’s film, cut together from flawed and incomplete footage.
The first half starts out fairly flat, but it establishes the way the film will proceed, with strange and imperfect cuts, bad audio and flickering, washed out 70’s camera technology to introduce the characters in interviews and their arrival on the moon. But when a strange, skittering noise begins to show up in their communication transmissions (sounding eerily like a mouse or rat scurrying around outside the hull), the film’s strange editing and silent soundtrack begin to be effective in ratcheting up the tension in a way reminiscent of Cloverfield, if it had been shot in 1974. Like Cloverfield, it utilizes the age-old dictum of horror that a threat you don’t see is far more terrifying than the threat you do see; the imagination is the greatest CGI that exists. Unlike Cloverfield, Super 8 and Jaws, all of which stumble at the end by giving us a final reveal of the monster in its fullness, Apollo 18 never gives you a clear shot for more than a split second, so that the mind barely even registers what was seen. The use of light and shadow was also effectively utilized to obscure our total knowledge of what is happening; two of the best moments of the film is when the astronauts enter a deep crater and the only light is the momentary flash of their camera.
For all of its care to be perfectly realistic as a cobbled together edit of surviving footage of an unofficial NASA mission in the 70s’, as the story progresses it begins to stumble in both structural and visual areas. Some of the shot placements begin to feel cinematic and deliberate, and once the alien creatures make their (albeit brief) appearances, it is clear they are obviously CGI. The standard sci-fi tropes of a parasite, an infected human who goes crazy, and a fevered sprint across the moon with diminishing oxygen reserves to a conveniently abandoned but fully-functional Russian capsule all point to familiar and generally uninspired writing. (Unless it really happened that way. Ooooo.) As though unable to help it, the filmmakers have to include the standard “return-of-the-infected” human at the last moment as the capsule is trying to take off, and helpless to resist, include a campy CGI shot of parasites swarming in his helmet for an extended period of time, totally breaking the illusion of documented reality.
The film was enjoyable enough on a first viewing, but I don’t know that I would revisit it again. It is only momentarily thrilling; perhaps an amusing way to spend a Saturday afternoon if there was nothing else on TV, but not amazing by any stretch and relatively tame for a movie touted as a scary flick. There are, of course, all sorts of real questions revolving around the NASA missions; the missing 18 minutes, the video feed “failure,” the constant appearance of bright, swirling lights on nearly every mission, but the film does no favors to the theories it puts forward as explanation. Alien parasites indistinguishable from moonrocks until it is time to feed? What exactly did they eat before people showed up forty years ago? Whatever explanations there are of the mounting oddities of the NASA missions, they are certainly milder than this – perhaps now that the program is being de-funded, more of the real information will come to light. As to the film itself, while I will go out on a limb and say I probably enjoyed it more than critics and the general viewers, it was something of a lame duck.