Label: Anchor Bay / Starz (U.S.) / Region: A / Released: December 27, 2011
Genre: Science-Fiction / Horror / Conspiracy
Synopsis: ‘Found footage’ documentary on the mysterious happenings of a secret NASA mission to the moon, and why its 3 astronauts never returned.
Special Features: Audio commentarry with director Gonzalo López-Gallego and editor Patrick Lussier / Deleted and Alternate Scenes (20:22) / Alternate Endings (4:39) / Disc 2: DVD copy + Downloadable Digital Copy
“We were learning all the time what the movie was about” – director Gonzalo López-Gallego
The premise of Brian Miller’s original script cleverly plays on the alternate reality that NASA’s canceled Apollo 18 mission actually occurred, but was stricken off the record books because of a contagion that wiped out both an American and separate Russian expeditions, the latter either a super-secret mission from the sixties, or bungled one similarly affected by ‘moonster’ creatures that resemble rocks, but are in actuality spider-like creatures which infect and breed within the warm human bodies.
Of course, in an era when every NASA launch was televised and occurred at a great big Floridian location where a Saturn rocket could be seen far and wide by the general populace, there is no way a failed lunar mission could be camouflaged, let alone stricken from the record books after a serious failure – a key problem that makes Apollo 18 impossible to swallow, particularly as a ‘found footage’ film edited from a mass of secret NASA elements ‘recently’ uploaded to a website. (As a colleague quipped, ‘How the hell can we see 16mm footage shot by the astronauts when no one returned with the footage to get it developed?’)
It’s a challenge for any filmmaker to suspend audience disbelief with such a premise, and producer Timur Mekmambetov (Night Watch / Nochnoy dozor) felt the rough script was workable, so Bob Weinstein courted Spanish director Gonzalo López-Gallego, who had previously made a ‘found footage’ drama in 2003, Over the Rainbow / Sobre el arco iris.
López-Gallego had a definite vision of the film’s look, style, and basic themes, but what he never had was a finished script, and by relying on improvised scenes, the film proved not only too loose in the story department, but exceptionally dull to test audiences.
The Weinsteins, who rightly sensed a dud, wanted reshoots. In its original incarnation, Apollo 18 began as the two astronauts land on the moon, and set up the video gear for NASA to monitor the location. After one crewman becomes infected and goes mad, the other escapes and stumbles upon a mysteriously abandoned Soviet LEM. He also discovers the cadavers of the desiccated Soviets, and runs to the LEM when moonsters resembling big bunnies chase him. Inside the LEM, he either suffocates to death, was attacked from inside and died, or amazingly, was able to not only restart the module, but fire its rockets and take off but crashes in the crater where the creatures lie waiting.
Most of the newly shot material involved fast rewrites by uncredited contributors, and includes a new opening showing three astronauts prepping, launching, and reaching the moon; editorially repositioning the discovery of the Soviet LEM + new footage of the dead Soviets and LEM interior to the film’s middle; and having both astronauts escaping from the NASA LEM before one eventually attempts an escape using the Soviet module. Also augmented was the role of a third astronaut in the orbiting lunar module. The actor received additional scenes in the prologue and finale.
Many scenes were recut using audio and film footage from the various shoots and reshoots, and heavily trimmed were the moonsters – the bunnies were eradicated in place of more spider-like creatures. Collectively, the new material played on a muddy conspiracy theory where the U.S. astronauts were essentially billion dollar bait used by NASA in cooperation with the Soviets to install gear to record the creatures for further info gathering.
An alternate ending (one of several archived on the Blu-ray and DVD) has the third astronaut returning to Earth and being subsequently scolded by a cynical policy wonk for not only abandoning his colleagues, but missing an opportunity to bring back a body (what body?) for further bio-engineering the Americans could use to outrun current Soviet experiments.
As it stands, Apollo 18 is one big incoherent mess because no one had any solid story or structure from the beginning of principle photography. According to the commentary by director López-Gallego and editor Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry [M]), maybe 40% of what’s in the film was scripted, and plot points were created and rearranged during the extensive editing stage which may have been a rewarding creative journey for all, but offered no time to step away from the film and rethink a coherent, digestible structure.
Those problems are evidenced by creatures whose life cycle makes little sense – they apparently enter a body, gestate, cause varicose veins, and render the host into a state of delusion that includes being unfazed by rock spiders crawling over body and face – and worse, astronauts who don’t behave professionally. López-Gallego admits he had to do a bit of a crash course in NASA 101 prior to filming, but any published text, interview, or the original radio communications illustrate the sheer professionalism of NASA astronauts (which includes staying calm and rational when faced with dire circumstances). The film’s characters are far too casual and colloquial, and their personal breakdowns are spastic because bits and pieces of scenes were re-ordered, making any performance arc choppy.
In Alien (1979), a film populated by underpaid blue collar workers, a looser behaviour code is perfectly acceptable, but not NASA spacemen who were consistently publicized by the organization as the ‘best of the best.’
The only reason Apollo 18 works on a rudimentary level is perhaps intrigue for a grandiose NASA conspiracy, but as a horror film, its shocks are too few, Lussier’s decision to restrict creature details don’t offer any monster fans any payoffs at all, and long stretches of the film are exceptionally dull. The fact Harvey Weinstein had to push for a deleted scene’s reinstatement – an emotionally wrenching radio exchange where NASA tells the stranded astronaut in the Soviet LEM he’s being abandoned due to a severe contamination risk – perhaps proves how the film was shot and edited too fast, and director Gonzalo López-Gallego lacked the objectivity to discern what his film was actually about.
The only creative triumphs that lie inside of Apollo 18 are its production design, the faithfully recreated lunar locations, the costumes, and LEM interiors evocative of vintage NASA footage.
There’s also an amazing array of film and video formats used to create a disjointed but realistic multimedia glimpse into a NASA mission. López-Gallego and cameraman José David Montero perfectly capture vintage newsreels and NASA’s own extensive film documentation, and with Lussier’s expert editing, they interpolated multiple formats, grains, variable shutter speeds, and video footage from archaic gear to create a rich visual experience. Montero went so far as to scratch unexposed film prior to shooting, and it’s a reminder how much verisimilitude can be crafted outside of the digital realm; if 16mm archival footage is supposed to look like crap, physically treat it like crap.
The Blu-ray comes with a bevy of alternate and deleted scenes that capture the filmmaker’s trials in making sense of a conceptual script, including multiple death choices, unused footage of the third astronaut, and various endings. The audio commentary is rock solid, although López-Gallego admits most of their comments are biased, since the track was recorded days after the picture was locked, and two weeks prior to the film’s release.
In a move that evokes Disney paranoia, by engaging the audio commentary from the menu, as stated in the adjoining text declaration, the viewer is automatically agreeing to not hold the Weinstein Company and its brethren liable for anything that may be construed as defamatory. Two simple words capture how offensive this ‘contract’ is to buyers and viewers of this product: Fuck Off.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review