Final Frontier, by Kyle Anderson
Found-footage horror movies run the gamut from the ultra-low budget Paranormal Activity to the blockbuster Cloverfield. As interesting as some of these movies can be, the believability of them rests almost solely on the idea that these people wouldn’t just drop the camera the second the giant beast or the ghost showed up. Occasionally, a filmmaker will come up with a way to make the trope work for them and manage to show us something we haven’t seen before. Director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego’s new film Apollo 18 manages to turn the well-worn filming style on its ear by taking a small group of people to a familiar yet foreign environment: the moon. Using the lunar landscape as a backdrop, Lopez-Gallego offers a small film with enormous scope, understated special effects, and real fear.
Using the real-life idea that, due to lack of funding, the proposed 20 Apollo missions stopped at 17, the film begins by telling us 84 hours of footage depicting the top secret 18th Apollo mission have surfaced. The three astronauts, Anderson, Walker, and Grey, were called in secret and told that their mission has not been scrapped after all, but it’s a Department of Defense endeavor and they aren’t allowed to tell their families. While wary of the lack of information, the thrill of getting to walk on the moon proves too enticing to turn down. Their official mission is to land near the South Pole of the moon and place DOD listening devices in specific areas. Not long after landing on the moon, Anderson and Walker start noticing strange occurrences and weird interference with their equipment. Once Astronaut Grey in the orbiting command module approaches reaches the dark side of the moon and communications with him gets cut off, the two on the moon find something that completely changes what they assumed their mission to be, and learn the horror that they aren’t the only living beings there.
From watching the trailer, it’s pretty clear what the film was “about” but the real question was how well the premise would be communicated and truthfully I wasn’t expecting much. The film began as a direct-to-DVD film that made such an impression on Bob and Harvey Weinstein that Dimension Films decided to pick it up for theatrical release. This boded well for the film, but given that huge releases are often complete drivel (Conan the Barbarian, anyone?), it wasn’t an absolute slam dunk that Apollo 18 would be good. What a relief it was when the film not only was NOT drivel, but it was actually both affecting and truly frightening. The “things” on the Moon are totally believable, innovative, and underplayed. It would have been very easy to make the lunar threat a huge CGI monster or a guy in a suit, but thankfully Lopez-Gallego only uses CG sparingly and effectively.
The most impressive thing about Apollo 18 is not the creatures, but the cinematography. In the course of the story, the astronauts are supplied with a number of Westinghouse 16mm cameras to document their mission for the DOD, so the presence of many cameras and the fact that they stay running throughout the film makes complete sense. Also, as it’s a period film, 1972 to be precise, the cameras used are 16mm (or digital made to look like 16mm) and it’s amazing how much realism is added by using older, less refined film stock. There are also a number of shots that are supposed to take place on the moon which look as realistic as any lunar surface ever put to film. Using compositing and color-correction and CG backgrounds, the film really looks like it was in fact shot on the moon, which is a real feat.
Similarly, the soundtrack was played with in an interesting way. Since it’s a “found footage” movie, there can’t be much in the way of incidental music, but there’s a great deal of tweaking the ambient noise and enhancing or turning up the volume to accentuate the unease the characters are feeling. The noise the creatures make (or might be making…) is also enhanced and messed with in an effort to freak out the audience.
It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a highly entertaining one. The plotline is predictable if you’re familiar with this type of film, but it’s handled in a way I personally was not expecting and with a lot more panache than usual. Everything made sense which is a big thing for me. There was a sufficient explanation for things within the confines of the film and things that were not explained didn’t need to be. With a runtime of 88 minutes, seven of which is end credits, Apollo 18 doesn’t beat around the bush. It’s a three-character B sci-fi/horror film that tries for something more, and for the most part, it’s successful.