Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews Apollo 18
Ever since the Blair Witch Project debuted back in 1999, found-footage films have been a major source of income for movie studios due to an extremely low budgets and remarkably high returns. For example, Paranormal Activity 2 cost $3 million to make and raked in $177 million worldwide. While larger productions may make a significantly higher net-income for a studio (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), they also carry a greater risk of financial failure (Green Lantern). As a result, low cost found-footage productions, with unknown actors, small crews, and low production values are a no-brainer for movie executives.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that after exploring supernatural subjects such as witches and demons, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood added aliens to the genre with Apollo 18. However, has the found-footage movie genre finally discovered a frontier that it cannot conquer (i.e. make money from) or does Apollo 18 open up a whole new potential franchise?
Unfortunately Apollo 18 proves that not every found-footage scenario can deliver an entertaining time at the theater. Whether due to an overly-long set-up, a predictable plot progression, ho-hum reveals, as well as an idiotic and mostly familiar threat, Apollo 18 fails to build tension, deliver legitimate scares, or introduce an intriguing sci-fi mythology.
Instead, the basic premise of the film borrows from other sci-fi horror space films - and proceeds to execute them in less interesting ways. The story follows three astronauts in December of 1974 who are sent on a top secret mission (Apollo 18) to the moon, in order to deploy a series of transmitters designed to intercept Soviet signals... or so they think. As is apparent in every aspect of the film's marketing, two of the astronauts land on the moon (while the other orbits, piloting their ride home) and soon discover that something is amiss in one of the craters. As the days tick down on the mission, the situation becomes increasingly unusual - and the astronauts begin to suspect that they weren't actually sent on a mission to monitor the Soviets, but were sent to the moon to draw out a dangerous threat to humanity.
Cory Goodman (who also penned Priest) had a hand in the script and the dialogue - and subsequent performances are adequate. However, found footage movies aren't about believable acting or relatable character interactions - they're about captivating tension and cathartic scares. There's no doubt that on paper, the Apollo 18 story sounds like a sure-fire success at the box office - however on the screen, the film fails at nearly every single element that made prior found-footage stories enjoyable.
First thing: Surprises. There are next to no surprising developments in the film - with the exception of how surprisingly uninteresting the alien threat turns out to be. Nearly every would-be jump-scare is telegraphed by an overly-familiar set-up: i.e. a close-up shot of one of the astronauts snoring. As a result, there are very few legitimately unpredictable moments in the film, and even when the "action" picks up, Apollo 18 has already failed to build substantial tension - so the closing minutes mostly bump along as expected. The scares, and over-arching storyline, will be especially flat for anyone who has seen one of the Apollo 18 trailers - which give away nearly every would-be shocker in the film.
Second thing: Fear of the unknown. As mentioned, the alien threat in the film is especially lazy. Unlike similar films, which successfully educated audiences on some unknown entity such as the paranormal (before subsequently unleashing their respective "monsters"), the filmmakers do very little to establish any kind of mystery or mythology around the film's antagonist - withholding everything but face-value info. At no point in Apollo 18 does an "expert" or more informed character crack open the core set-up to ground the flat series of events in something more interesting. There's something to be said for a film that throws the audience into an inexplicable scenario and creates tension by showing the unfolding events through equally clueless characters; however, that only works when there are worthwhile layers of mystery to uncover. Instead, when it comes to Apollo 18, viewers are forced to watch a series of unscary and uninteresting events unfold, without ever becoming privy to a worthwhile context.
Third thing: Competent camera work. By far one of the least successful aspects of the film is the actual implementation of the cameras that recorded the found-footage. As in similar films, heavy suspension of disbelief is required (i.e. the camera is, for some reason, the most important thing imaginable - even when you're running for your life); however, unlike similar films, the camera work in Apollo 18 is boring at best - and more often than not, flat-out nauseating. Where the scares in a film like Paranormal Activity play out through static shots of creepy events unfolding, Apollo 18 tends to skew toward a collection of blurry and/or frenetic images that, with the exception of a frame here or there, show nothing of interest while presenting the empty story in the most uncomfortable way imaginable.
As a result, it's nearly impossible to recommend Apollo 18 to anyone but the most staunch found-footage genre fans - as the film fails nearly every requirement of a tense and enjoyable time at the theater. If nothing else, the movie stands as a stark example that not every premise is ripe for the found-footage treatment. That said, it's hard to imagine Apollo 18 will not be a money-maker for the studio - even though the film cost nearly twice as much as Paranormal Activity 2 (a "whopping" $5 million) - meaning, despite being one of the sloppiest films of 2011, we'll probably be seeing an Apollo 19.
If you’re still on the fence about Apollo 18, check out the trailer below:
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick - and let us know what you thought of the film below:
Apollo 18 is now playing in theaters.
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