The Improbable Astronauts
As the damp cold of autumn replaces the damp cold of summer with all the inevitability of an Inbetweeners sequel being announced, one thing at least can stir the spirits and perk up even the most jaded filmgoer: at least we get a quirkier class of genre movie this time of year. Doing its best to be several things at once is Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego's Apollo 18, a this-ain't-gonna-fool-anyone mockumentary about the titular moon mission. (Insert your own joke about missing the first four sequels to the Tom Hanks movie here if you really must– I nearly did.)
What's that you say? Apollo 17 was the final manned moon launch? Ho ho, think again. Supposedly made up entirely of footage shot by people involved in the mission, principally the three astronauts, this movie reveals that in 1974 the go-ahead was given for another, classified mission, carried out in secret under the auspices of the US Department of Defence. The initial stated objective is to set up surveillance equipment at the south lunar pole to monitor Soviet activity.
The flight and landing go according to plan but the lunar module crew find their sojourn on the moon plagued with small, inexplicable equipment failures and other odd happenings. But all these are instantly forgotten when they discover the remains of an unreported Soviet moon mission, including the corpse of a cosmonaut who has died in very strange circumstances indeed…
Well, from this point the film follows a fairly predictable arc– grim revelations as to the true nature of the mission, contact, contagion, paranoia, madness, and carnage– and the SF horror element of the plot is really nothing very original. To this extent the movie operates very much in the shadow of Alien, and it's possibly just a bit too vague about the nature of exactly what the astronauts discover on the lunar surface (some of the CGI is perhaps not quite up to the highest standards, either).
However, the movie scores very heavily when it comes to verisimilitude. Historically, opinion has been divided about how easy it is to convincingly fake a moon landing in a film studio, but the film-makers do a very neat job indeed. Do you emerge believing they shot it on location in orbit? No, of course not; but your disbelief is comfortably put, if not into zero gravity, then at least one-sixth G. The period setting is also skillfully and credibly achieved.
Things are helped by the innately claustrophobic and primitive nature of early Seventies space technology. One possibly unintended consequence of this movie is that I emerged with a much greater appreciation of the tremendous courage of the genuine Apollo astronauts for doing what they did. I also found myself asking why the actual Apollo 11 flight hasn't been the subject of a movie yet, as it would surely be at least as engrossing as a genre movie like this, no matter how well it's been made.
Oh well. You're never in much doubt as to how this story's going to unfold, but Lopez-Gallego's direction and the performances of the actors playing the astronauts (Warren Christie and Lloyd Owen carry most of the action) make this an entertainingly creepy and uncomfortable movie to watch. It is, in the end, a movie built around a brilliant conceit, which tells its story in a very effective way. A good movie to sit on the 'Truth about NASA' shelf next to Capricorn One and Alternative Three, but a fun movie in its own right as well.