Isn’t it pathetic that we find it so much more exciting to get worked up over NASA-nostalgia retro-paranoid conspiracy theories about why it’s been 40 years since we went to the moon, rather than getting worked up about the lack of political will, the deflation of our spirit of adventure, and all the other true-to-life bullshit that’s rendered the moon off-limits in recent decades?
Anyway, I was planning to get myself worked up along those lines over Apollo 18. But I can’t. Because it actually is much more exciting to ponder the minutiae of NASA bureaucracy and the particulars of federal budget allocations than it is to sit through this mind-numbing excuse for a movie. Hell, it’s even less depressing to think about the throwing away of America’s space program than it is to contemplate just how the hell anyone could make a movie this empty.
Apollo 18 is not scary. It’s not intense. It’s not surprising. It’s supposed to be all these things and fails completely. Its peculiar brand of ineptness is not of the so-bad-it’s-funny sort, so there’s no humor, not even of the accidental kind, to be gleaned from it. It’s not about anything. It has nothing to say. Nothing about human fear. Nothing about human aspirations. Nothing about the human endeavors of science, exploration, or politics. Nothing.
It doesn’t even work on the limited scale of its own merits.
First time screenwriter Brian Miller has just about managed to come up with a nearly plausible scenario under which NASA would team up with the Department of Defense to launch a mission to the moon in secret… which the premise demands, because you can’t retroactively make a very public mission secret, and we’re supposed to accept that no one has known about the Apollo 18 mission till now. (NASA history and public memory says that Apollo 17 was the last manned moon mission.) But then it falls apart. The found-footage nature of this faux documentary — director Gonzalo López-Gallego allegedly assembled this from 84 hours of recently rediscovered footage taken by the “Apollo 18” crew — demands certain conditions that are immediately obvious from early on in the film. Much of the footage we see was, ostensibly, shot by the astronauts (played by anonymous unknown actors who do their best with what they’re given) on the moon using film cameras. That footage must have been returned to Earth and processed: it could not have been digitally transmitted to Earth, as some of the other material conceivably was. So that requires the safe return of the crew, which significantly lowers the already not-very-high stakes. Or significantly high stakes requires that the filmed footage never make it back to Earth. Which would undercut the very notion of the film itself.
Either way, something is hinky from the get-go, and it gets worse. How dumb must these astronauts be not to question until waaaay far into the story — such as it is, padded out even though the runtime is barely 75 minutes not counting end credits — why the DoD has them placing motion-activated cameras on the lunar surface? I mean, what do they expect to be moving around out there? How could this question not occur to them while, you know, they were still on Earth?
Of course, something is moving outside their lunar lander, and what it turns out to be is simultaneously preposterous and boring. How the astronauts react to it is simultaneously predictable and dreary: we know next to nothing about these men, we’re allowed no sense of what surely must be their initial excitement to be walking on the moon turning into (supposed) horror. The moon is a thrilling enough place on its own, without the added “benefit” of “there’s something alive out there!” And Apollo 18 wants nothing to do with that, for some, ahem, alien reason.
Look, the something weird going on in Apollo 18 has to do with the lunar rocks. Rocks are not inherently all that interesting unless you’re a geologist. But the very best episode of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon was about a geologist teaching a couple of idiot flyboy astronauts why rocks are exciting, and how to see the moon with the eyes of a geologist. And they end up getting it. The idiot flyboy astronauts end up getting excited about rocks. Even though there’s nothing unusual or dangerous about them. And their enthusiasm infected us. Apollo 18 isn’t even bound by that reality — of the mundane thing that can be secretly exciting — and it still can’t manage to make us feel anything at all.