Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Gonzalo López-Gallego's Apollo 18 isn’t just a fun potboiler but an unlabeled conspiracy tape hiding in the wrong VHS sleeve, a straight-faced, paranoid political thriller spawned by the unholy union of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wikileaks. Presented as a compilation of classified footage uploaded to a website, the film opens in the language of conspiracy docs and never lets go, building that ‘70s political thriller vibe through its jittery paranoia, invocation of Watergate, and the recurring symbol of the offscreen god-voice of a Defense Department deputy (not NASA) demanding blind obedience from his highly qualified dogs. The plot is naturally crawling with red herrings, but they’re not random surprises. Rather, the Cold War and the psychological tricks forcing us to wonder what’s real fuel the blood-red fire of Apollo 18’s mission: a seething assault on the political overclass. It has its didactic moments—call-signs Liberty and Freedom, a shredded American flag—but no conspiracy theory was ever fertilized with subtlety. And this particular street preacher has a message beyond fire and brimstone: Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.
That’s not to ignore the genre elements, which take as freely from Alien and Twilight Zone as Mission to Mars and Red Planet, resulting in a plot that never lacks for an adrenaline injection, no matter how cheap. The found footage conceit is merciful: Unlike Paranormal Activity, López-Gallego never wastes our time watching nothing, and unlike The Blair Witch Project, Apollo 18 doesn’t save its horror for one garbled final shot. The Saw camera-flash-strobe lights our way through two exciting EVAs, some mild Cronenbergian body horror starts a ticking clock, and López-Gallego delivers at least one breathtaking composition straight out of Lovecraft. Cynics who wait at the exit instead of getting on the roller coaster find the solution to the mystery dumb and the plot derivative, but of course they are. Apollo 18 has no anxiety of influence because it has no pretension, openly embracing its close friendship with truthers and moon landing hoaxers. It’s free to soar precisely because it wants to be the sleaziest flick of the year. It believes in the unwashed as much as the masses.
But what the Cliché Chorus miss is just how deftly made it is. Despite its skuzzy feel, the film respects us with its amateur found footage style. The handheld is a bit floaty but never epileptic, and the stationary security cams show nothing only to tell us that all’s well (for now), not to trick us into searching for some grainy ghost. Speaking of old-fashioned filmmaking, Apollo 18 approaches the transformation of digital into film with modesty, reveling in sparing, convincing lens flares and enough noise to keep George Lucas busy between re-releases but never obscuring or distracting from the visuals; there’s just enough print damage to keep us in the Deepthroat ‘70s. The compositions take advantage of the naturally expressionistic lighting and color palette of the moon, but the primary visual strategy is in security guard montage, floating among the five or six NASA cameras and a magical one that captures some excusably gorgeous wide shots. The film wants us on our toes as it disorients us, while the silence and the shadows and the dread erect the atmosphere of a spooky deserted carnival.
Of course, some of those clichés I defend help to sink the ending, which is uncharacteristically slack even before the typical horror movie twists arrive to partially validate the arguments the rest of the film rabidly rips apart. But one thing the film never relents on is its faith in the people. Our astronauts are American icons, headstrong, creative, and uber-competent, and no matter what happens, Apollo 18 depicts these political pawns as a society who will risk everything to help each other. It’s a shame that faith becomes a punchline.