Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Apollo 18

Rock and A Hard Place

Apollo 18 2011 USA/Canada
Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego
Screening at UK cinemas

Warning: Houston, we have some spoilers.

As I believe I’ve mentioned in passing on more than one occasion, there’s an awful lot of these “found footage”, first person movies coming out in cinemas at the moment. They’re still very much the big thing, it would seem, and are taking a lot longer to die back down to a mere mumble of a stylistic phenomenon than I thought they would. Of the three movies I saw this weekend at the cinema, for example, this and one other, The Troll Hunter, were produced using this pseudo-verite kind of camera-eye view of the world. I’m not complaining about this mind you... I think this style can really work well... although I do begrudge the lack of a nice bit of film scoring to keep my ears going.

I’ve heard some bad stuff about Apollo 18 but I have to say that it was a lot better than I think people are giving it credit for. The use of “period flavour” of the found footage aspect of this going back to an “early seventies NASA footage” style is really expertly handled, not just in the degradation and general feel of the film stock, or even in the more than competent acting found from the two main leads, but also in the casting process. I know a lot of it is all make-up and hairstyle but the three “astronauts” in this movie do have a certain iconic “American Space Hero” look to them and it really helps get the tone of this movie right.

There’s been a lot of criticism that this movie isn’t scary and it’s been trounced as being a little silly too... but I have to say that, apparently unlike the audience I overheard leaving the auditorium at the end of the show, I found myself quite wound up by the suspense of the whole thing, which describes a group of astronauts sent to the moon secretly under false pretences to investigate just what has been going on up there since the last mission... and also since the Russians got up there.

Well, what has been going on up there is that a massive bunch of sentient space rocks that turn into dubious but still scary spider creatures have bashed up and murdered the crew of the Russian craft and they’re gunning for our all American boys as being next on their lunar hit list. Of course the way the movie ratchets up the tension is to have the American guys playing pretty dumb and not really figuring out for the longest time that there are animated moon rocks running around the surface... even when one of the astronaut’s “samples” gets out its bag while they are asleep.

At first, I was quite worried that the pseudo-documentary footage style which is usually so effective in these kinds of films would be severely diluted by the attention to authenticity in the quest to match this to footage from this particular time period, but after a few little jump scares which I was expecting, but which still kinda worked on me had occurred, I realised that the movie wasn’t going to lose any of its ability to get the adrenalin going... at least not through the style of the footage at any rate.

It’s true that the movie could have been a lot more scarier but that might have thrown the pacing out from what we are used to seeing in modern historical documentation on the moon landings and so I think a healthy balance was achieved. Saying this, though, there were a couple of sequences involving an astronaut scrambling down the inside of a dark crater using only the camera flash bulb “pops” to light his descent and progress that, I confess, had me a little worried. On the down side though, whenever the rocks stopped moving around like I was watching an episode of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time and turned into... um... well yeah, like I said, lunar spiders... the scare factor did go down a little.

When one of the crew members, the captain of the mission, gets "bitten" by a rock and infected, things suddenly start to get very much like a tribute to the Victor Caroon character in Nigel Kneale’s classic sci-fi horror serial The Quatermass Experiment and the majority of this movie, it has to be said, almost played out as the “unseen space happenings” which form the basis of that story. However, Neale’s version with the camera cutting out and only showing you a few minutes at a time over the space of a very short sequence of time, was a far more effective way of doing things it has to be said. Quatermass was very much a case of less is more to produce a very eerie and terrifying effect in Kneale’s alien infection story and one can only imagine what wonders he could have produced, if he were alive today, and hired to work as a script doctor for this film. A truly pants-wetting experience is my guess.

But, to be fair to the movie in question, is does hurtle along at a pace, while still being sympathetic to the archival flavour of the “recordings” format and there were just about enough scares and bumps in the night in this one to give me pause for thought as the evening after the screening wore on.

But the acid test, for me of course, is would I buy it on DVD. Yeah, sure, of course... but not until it’s going for £3 in the HMV sale or some such. Will be happy to revisit it at much less expense to myself than the price of a cinema ticket. Make of that what you will but for someone who tends to use the cinema as the shop window for later purchases, I’m very glad to be seeing movies like this at the cinema first so I know enough to figure out how much I’m prepared to pay for them. If you have a penchant for sci-fi flavoured horror though... you could do a lot worse than going off to see this at your local cinema. One giant leap for the film-makers... one small step for the audience.

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