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Thursday, January 20, 2022

‘Apollo 18’ – Finding the Good in Found Footage’s Ambitious Trip into Space [The Silver Lining]

Watching a bad movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad experience. Even the worst films can boast a good idea or two, and that’s why we’re trying to look on the bright side with The Silver Lining, where we shine a light on the best parts of traditionally maligned horror flicks.

This time, we’ll be discussing Gonzalo López-Gallego’s 2011 Found-Footage thriller, Apollo 18!

For eons, humankind looked up at the moon in awe, wondering about its origins and purpose as it accompanied our primitive nights. That’s why NASA’s Apollo missions can be considered some of the most pivotal moments in our species’ history – when we figuratively exited the cosmic cradle and entered a larger universe. This progression obviously came with huge social repercussions, so it’s only natural that folks are still questioning the facts decades later.

From the 180 moon rocks that mysteriously vanished after being brought back during the original missions to my personal favorite suspicion that the lunar landing itself was 100% real but the footage wasn’t, there’s definitely no shortage of conspiracy theories about the subject. That’s why it’s no surprise that there are so many lunar thrillers out there, and it was only a matter of time before one of them took the Found-Footage approach when exposing some variation of a moon-related conspiracy.

Back in 2010, Dimension Films began marketing Apollo 18, an eerily realistic Found-Footage flick supposedly comprised of lost media from a previously classified lunar mission. Following in the footsteps of the best Found-Footage films of the past, López-Gallego’s thriller benefited from a convincing marketing campaign (mostly involving the now-defunct that was so successful it prompted NASA spokesperson Bert Ulrich to publicly dismiss the film as a work of fiction.

When the first trailer finally dropped, revealing genuine-looking 16mm footage filmed by astronauts dealing with an extraterrestrial threat, horror fans were stoked for what appeared to be the sci-fi equivalent of The Blair Witch Project.


Making over five times its original budget at the box office, Apollo 18 wasn’t exactly a cinematic disaster. However, the 23% score on Rotten Tomatoes suggests that, while people were definitely interested in seeing what the filmmakers had cooked up, most moviegoers walked away from the flick expecting something a little more substantial.

Much like the retroscripted Found-Footage hits of yore, the filmmakers behind Apollo 18 allowed the story to be fluidly rewritten during filming, incorporating improvisation and spur-of-the-moment story beats as they attempted to craft a believable horror flick. While this technique worked wonders on The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the inherent limitations of making a sci-fi thriller that looks like official NASA footage left López-Gallego with much less creative freedom than his predecessors.

Not only is it harder to justify character moments in a Found-Footage movie when your protagonists are exclusively meant to be filming for scientific purposes (especially back in the 70s, when film stock was a precious commodity), but budgetary concerns also limited how creative the filmmakers could get with set pieces and their explanation for why astronauts never returned to that big cheese wheel in the sky.

If you haven’t already seen Apollo 18, the following paragraph contains spoilers, but I don’t believe you’ll be missing out on much if you go in already knowing the twist. To put it bluntly, the film basically reveals that the moon is populated by murderous aliens pretending to be rocks, and that’s what led to the demise of NASA’s Apollo missions. Unfortunately, these aliens aren’t particularly scary or even visually interesting, and the idea itself becomes kind of laughable the more you think about it.

In all honesty, I would have preferred it if the filmmakers had kept this speculative turn of events ambiguous, much like the titular witch in The Blair Witch Project. The film would have been way more interesting if the lunar mystery was left open to interpretation, including the possibility that there were no aliens at all and the astronauts simply went mad and killed each other.

While the CGI-enhanced murder rocks don’t completely ruin the experience, it’s clear that Apollo 18 tried so hard to be a lifelike recreation of retro space footage that it forgot to be an actual movie. The long stretches of simulated NASA protocol might be eerily realistic, but they also get boring after a while, and the experience culminates in an underwhelming sci-fi twist.


Apollo 18 may not have been the Found-Footage opus that the filmmakers originally set out to make, but there’s no denying that a lot of thought went into crafting this surprisingly authentic throwback. From being shot on period-accurate lenses to embracing the unedited scientific footage aesthetic, you would be forgiven for thinking that the film was originally stored deep within NASA’s secret vaults (at least until the killer rocks show up).

This attention to detail extends to other areas of the production as well. From the period-accurate soundtrack featuring music from bands like Yes and Jethro Tull to referencing the infamous In Event of Moon Disaster speech prepared by the Nixon administration in case the Apollo astronauts became permanently stranded on the moon, everything suggests that the filmmakers really cared about the project.

The producers actually managed to hire a real Apollo flight director to consult on the film, making sure that their horrific re-enactment looked as much like the real thing as possible, with a lot of effort being put into designing the retro NASA technology. This makes the film an amusing throwback for both history and conspiracy nuts, with the entire experience being peppered with historical Easter eggs. The writers even came up with believable cover stories for the astronauts that died in the film, basing their fake deaths on suspicious real-world incidents.

While I wouldn’t blame you for dismissing Apollo 18 as yet another unremarkable addition to the Found-Footage pantheon, I think it’s a fascinating watch if you’re willing to approach it as long-lost historical footage revealing a decades-long conspiracy instead of a traditional horror movie. Either way, I still think this fun little experiment is worth revisiting, and I honestly wish we’d see more ambitious Found-Footage projects like this in the future.


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