Popularised by 1999's The Blair Witch Project, the "found footage" subgenre has to date covered a wide array of areas, including exorcisms, ghosts, monsters, zombies, and more. Apollo 18 blasts the subgenre into outer space, mixing thrills, claustrophobia, conspiracy theories and altered history to generate this rather unique attempt at manufactured realism. The movie is also note-worthy due to how aggressive the "authenticity" claims are; producer Bob Weinstein was quoted as saying "We didn't shoot anything, we found it. Found, baby", and Apollo 18's marketing asserts that it presents "the truth" about why NASA abruptly stopped travelling to the moon. Conspiracy freaks are likely to have a fucking field day with the faux facts presented here, but the film is destined to be polarising for average movie-goers - it may satisfy admirers of found footage pictures, but it probably won't impress many others.
It's a well-noted historical fact that NASA cancelled all moon-bound space missions after Apollo 17, and this has fuelled conspiracy theories for years. Apollo 18 posits the possibility that this may have been part of a huge government cover-up. Claiming to have been edited from 84 hours of raw footage long hidden from the public, the film concerns the secret launch of Apollo 18, which was manned by a trio of astronauts: Ben Anderson (Christie), Nate Walker (Owen), and John Grey (Robbins). With John stationed in orbit, Ben and Nate begin studying the moon's surface and collecting rock samples. However, the pair soon discover that there may be more to the mission than originally thought. After finding an abandoned Russian proton lander and a blooded corpse nearby, Ben and Nate realise that something strange is happening, and that the moon may not be as desolate as initially assumed.
With movie-goers now quite knowledgeable about the found footage gimmick after having been duped by The Blair Witch Project, it's impossible to craft another such flick that will actually fool anyone. Therefore, the success of any found footage film is measured by how believably the material is sold. Thankfully, director Gonzalo López-Gallego for the most part gets it right in this respect. The performances here seem remarkably natural, the sets are completely convincing, and the visual scheme competently sells the gimmick. Apollo 18 looks like it was genuinely shot in space back in the 1970s, with a grainy, dated-looking film aesthetic that's free of Hollywood artifice. Better still, the various visual imperfections work extremely well, with scratches, specks of dirt and camera glitches that feel completely organic and further help to sell the illusion. Patrick Lussier's editing, meanwhile, is equally impressive, with multiple-camera set-ups having been cut to ensure maximum coherency. The final touch is the evocative sound mix which further allows us to believe we're watching genuine footage rather than actors on a set.
Like every found footage movie, Apollo 18 is a slow-burn of a thriller, so one's enjoyment of the picture is very dependant on your liking of the gimmick. If you found Paranormal Activity boring, you're destined to lose patience rapidly, but this reviewer found the material to be intensely watchable (even engrossing) as it subtly raises anxiety and tension levels the more the narrative progresses. It also seems that writers Cory Goodman and Brian Miller conducted a lot of research, as the dialogue is full of credible-sounding technical mumbo-jumbo. But Apollo 18 does stumble in its scripting department, as Ben, Nate and John are given merely a job title and a few family references before being thrown into horrific circumstances. The film does not provide much of a chance for us to truly care about these characters, hence the picture's dramatic stronghold is not as powerful as it should have been. And, of course, it takes until the movie's final act before any sort of powerful extraterrestrial threat kicks in, but the payoff is underwhelming. It feels like the filmmakers could have gone further and designed a more terrifying space-based horror film.
At the end of the day, Apollo 18 is a competent enough effort, with top-notch technical contributions and a cast capable of naturalistic acting. However, it fails to leave a lasting impact due to the forgettable, generic characters and the lingering sense that more could have been done with this bone-chilling premise.