Upon hearing the title of the recently released “Apollo 18” movie, one might say, “But I already saw ‘Apollo 13!’” Beyond similar titles, however, these films have little in common. Straying far from the heroism, courage and teamwork on display in “Apollo 13,” director Gonzalo López-Gallego (“El Rey de la Montaña”) explores a universe of danger and deception in the United States’ pursuit of manned space flight.
López-Gallego’s first English-language film is based on the premise that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration did not actually cancel its Apollo 18 mission to the moon. While NASA tells us that Apollo 17 was the last moon-bound mission, López-Gallego imagines a story in which NASA and the military sent Apollo 18 to the moon in December of 1974. The crew and the spaceship did not come back.
Because, they claim, the government covered up the whole incident, the “Apollo 18” producers had to piece together the film from recently ‘discovered’ camera footage. The film’s production company also claims that the film contains no actors. As such, the film’s three leads — Lloyd Owen (“Miss Potter”), Warren Christie (“Magic Flute Diaries”) and Ryan Robbins (“Cold Blooded”) — are uncredited. The story that unfolds documents the alleged events that led to NASA’s decision to discontinue sending astronauts to the moon ever since the loss of Apollo 18.
The film takes place during the voyage of three NASA astronauts to the moon. We learn that instead of sending an unmanned cargo ship to outer space, NASA actually is undertaking a secret mission under the direction of the Department of Defense. Commander Nate Walker (Owen) and Captain Ben Anderson (Christie) have been selected to pilot the Lunar Module to the moon’s surface, while Lieutenant Colonel John Grey (Robbins) stays in orbit, waiting in the Command Module until Walker and Anderson return at the completion of the mission.
Walker and Anderson land the Lunar Module (called “Liberty”), collect strange-looking rocks and deploy motion-detecting cameras at preselected points around Liberty. They encounter increasingly paranormal phenomena — the disappearance of an American flag, misplacement of rock samples inside Liberty and damage of the lunar rover. All the while, they report back to Grey, who vigilantly watches from the quiet of the Command Module (called “Freedom”).
Walker and Anderson explore the nearby lunar landscape and slowly learn the reasons they were sent to the moon. To avoid spoiling the movie for viewers, let’s just say that the movie’s predictability is both a strength and weakness.
Those familiar with classic sci-fi thrillers like Ridley Scott’s “Alien” or Duncan Jones’ “Moon” will recognize familiar themes of misguided interests infecting the glories of spaceflight. “Apollo 18” follows a tradition of films that question the value of traveling into uncharted territory for the sake of scientific advancement or financial gain, accomplishing this by illustrating its human costs. From this angle, “Apollo 18” is neither novel nor trailblazing.
While the plot development of the film is at times trite and overstated, this predictability gives viewers time to notice the style of its camerawork. López-Gallego adopts a documentary aesthetic that gives the lunar surface and interior cabins of the Apollo spaceships a gritty realism. Viewers may recognize this style from many films of the disaster-horror genre. What makes the scene work of “Apollo 18” unique is the way López-Gallego integrates the themes of the film into its visual presentation.
The film is shot from mounted cameras in and surrounding the ship as well as cameras the astronauts hold at mid-level. The fuzziness of the astronauts’ vintage 1970s equipment is immediately apparent. This gives viewers the feeling of straining their necks as they try to follow the astronauts floating off screen in their spaceships or shaking the camera as they move about the lunar surface.
By providing the astronauts with camcorders, the scriptwriters let the audience experience the events of the movie almost literally through Walker and Anderson’s eyes. Like the astronauts, viewers lack knowledge or perception of what lies out of range of their painfully inadequate vision. Simultaneously, the sheer quantity of cameras is voyeuristic and makes the characters objects of the audience’s surveillance.
Yet even these extra eyes fail to enhance the astronauts’ vision. In fact, the cameras turn toward the astronauts as much as they do any paranormal activity. As Commander Nate Walker realizes midway through the film, “All the cameras Ben… They’re watching us.”
The challenge of editing a movie to appear amateur while advancing the plot in logical directions is one López-Gallego tackles with demonstrable skill. This is also where the strength of the acting really shines. Christie delivers a striking performance as he struggles to hold on to the mission’s unraveling strings in addition to his sanity.
Much of the fear the film inspires comes from its absences: of a straightforward premise, of visible danger and of patriotic mission. The moon’s eerie stillness mixed with random moments of chaos presents a jarring combination that is as disoriented as the astronauts floating in space.