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Movie review: 'Apollo 18'

The documentary-style thriller about a secret lunar mission takes its time to build up to the spooky action.

September 03, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A scene from "Apollo 18."
A scene from "Apollo 18." (Deminsion Films )

Purporting to be edited from 84 hours of footage recently uploaded to the Internet — by whom, it is not stated — "Apollo 18" would have viewers believe that this is the true story of how NASA and the Department of Defense sent a secret final manned mission to the moon in 1974 after the lunar program had been officially shut down. What the astronauts found there has been kept under wraps ever since.

In reality, "Apollo 18" is a faux found-footage thriller directed by Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo López-Gallego from a script by newcomer Brian Miller and produced by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov. The astronauts are played by Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen and Ryan Robbins.

When it starts to seem that mission leaders back on Earth might be deceiving the astronauts somehow — Watergate is explicitly referenced in conversation — the space explorers realize they are alone, with nothing to rely on except themselves and the things at hand. The film takes a startlingly long time to rev up, and even at less than 90 minutes feels thin and at moments like it is playing for time. Taking the premise at face value, why would anyone putting together "discovered footage" take so long to get to the good stuff?

Footage from space missions is frequently slightly spooky and unsettling — the meditative fixed camera, harsh lighting and odd angles can make the images creepy or sad. The story establishes that the astronauts set up motion-sensor cameras on the moon and carry Kodachrome hand-held cameras with them as a means of explaining how the images were captured and to allow for differences in quality, color and texture of the footage. (Patrick Lussier, director of the recent "Drive Angry 3D," is credited as editor and does a fine job of sorting it all out.)

The possibility of being stuck on the moon makes for blunt dramatic essentials and the film is at its best when it is a true chamber piece, a couple of astronauts stuck in a landing pod anxiously trying to figure out what to do. The filmmakers are not concerned with how the footage came to be discovered or the physics and realism of what it might really be like if one were attacked by creatures on the moon. Even if "Apollo 18" is not exactly as it presents itself to be, it is less of a stunt than a low-key and unassuming film of rising tension rather than big scares or wild shocks.

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