“Apollo 18 (2011)” is a horror/sci-fi found footage film which presents recovered film from the fictitious NASA Apollo 18 lunar mission that was secretly launched in 1974. Looking back at actual history, the last known manned mission to the lunar surface was Apollo 17, which took place on December 7, 1972. While NASA did in fact schedule Apollo 18, 19, and 20, all three missions were cancelled due to budgetary concerns. This film asserts that the Apollo 18 mission actually took place, and presents an edited version of the supposed 84 hours of raw footage recovered from the mission to support these claims.
Apollo 18 starts with excerpts of NASA pre-flight interviews of the flight crew: Nathan Walker (Mission Commander), John Grey (Command Module pilot), and Benjamin Anderson (Lunar Module Pilot). The crew explains that the Apollo 18 mission is a top secret initiative by the Department of Defense to deploy high frequency transmitters (called PSD5s) for an early warning anti-missile defense against the Soviet Union. The pre-flight interviews are intermixed with a home movie of a family barbecue at Benjamin’s home, adding some introductory character development at the onset of the film.
From here, the film transitions to an abbreviated version of the mission launch, journey to the moon, and landing on the lunar surface. After touchdown, the lunar module crew (Nathan Walker and Benjamin Anderson) go on several extra vehicular activities (EVAs) to deploy the PSD5s and Westinghouse motion detection cameras and collect rock samples. When the first PSD5 is activated, the crew experiences an electrical disturbance that impacts the camera feeds, lunar lander electrical systems, and communications. Despite these artifacts, the crew continues with their mission and drives the lunar rover to a remote location to deploy an additional PSD5. During their EVA, footage from one of the cameras captures something moving in the shadows of a nearby crater.
At the end of the first day of the mission the crew goes to sleep, but are soon awoken by rattling sounds coming from somewhere in the lunar module accompanied with more electrical interference. Meanwhile, one of the external Westinghouse cameras films what looks like a moving rock. From here the story picks up pace and many interesting and terrifying events take place. As much as I would like to delve deeper into the plot, doing so would introduce spoilers.
Reason for Filming & Found Footage Purity
The filming reason for Apollo 18 is indisputable, as NASA routinely captures as much data as possible from all their space missions. The abundance of video and camera feeds in this film fall well within the realm of reason, perhaps even more so given the real motive behind the Apollo 18 mission. The found footage purity is also near perfect as all footage is filmed from known camera sources provided by NASA. While the first 70 minutes of Apollo 18 presents found footage edits that comes across as something we would expect in a documentary, the final 15 minutes of the film presents as too artsy with the editing. While still 100% found footage, the editing towards the end of Apollo 18 has the feel of a cinematically shot film.
Apollo 18 is perhaps the most technically scrutinized found footage film of all time. Unlike other found footage films that are based on purely fictional events, Apollo 18 is based on actual historical events, namely the preceding Apollo missions, leaving this film open to scrutiny for those looking to compare the authenticity of Apollo 18 to the available footage from prior Apollo missions. When this film was released in 2011, I recall physicists, engineers, and other experts placing Apollo 18 under a microscope to find all the flaws in the technology, science, physics, and geology. This onslaught scrutinized the representation of lunar gravity, spacing between footprints on the lunar surface, crew dialog, procedures followed by the crew, moon dust physics, flight time, and date/time continuity. Apollo 18 is a film that approximates reality and is targeted for a layperson audience. To that end, I’m not going to nitpick Apollo 18 to the extent described above, but there are a few things that do not feel quite right.
The footage of the Apollo 18 flight and orbital scenes is a combination of newly shot footage intermixed with stock footage from actual NASA missions. The newly filmed scenes have all the appropriate aging and defects, seamlessly blending with the actual NASA footage. The huge disparity in the film quality and condition between different cameras and scenes throughout the film can be explained from the manner in which the film must have been recovered, which makes itself clear towards the end of the film. The film ranges from color to black and white, and from excellent quality, to very blurred and aged.
One aspect of the cinematography that didn’t feel quite right is that the video resolution for the footage that makes up most of the EVAs and lunar module scenes appears to be too high quality and crisp for the technology that existed in that era. In addition to the higher resolution, much of the film has an aspect ratio much larger than 4:3, which was standard for that time.
Using an aspect ratio of 4:3 and a low resolution picture quality in a theater would severely impact the entertainment value and watchability of this film on the big screen. As such, employing higher definition video and a letterbox screen are an understandable compromise for the scenes containing most of the action. All of the establishing shots and remote camera footage employs lower resolution filming with lots of image artifacts to bolster the illusion that this film was made a long time ago using older technology.
Micro-gravity is an area of physics that has plagued science fiction films for decades. Accurately recreating micro-gravity on an earthbound movie set is a big budget expense involving expensive practical effects and CGI. With a budget of only $5M, Apollo 18 does the best it can to create the illusion of lunar gravity.
One final concern, which won’t bother most viewers unless they are well versed in the lunar program, is that during a manned lunar mission, moon dust is a huge issue. The dust sticks to everything and should have created a visible mess on both the spacesuits and lunar module interior. For the duration of the film the space suits and lunar module appear close to pristine. In the grand scheme of what Apollo 18 sets out to accomplish on a $5M budget, the replication of lunar dust is a rather small concern.
In all, the special effects and look of this film continue to hold up exceptionally well after five years. Today’s CGI can easily overcome many of the shortcomings in Apollo 18, but even without the latest CGI, this film will come across as convincingly real for most views.
The acting in Apollo 18 feels authentic. The crew members come across as straight-laced military, behaving and talking like the Apollo crew did at the time. Additionally, the mission control and military personal appear authentic for their respective roles.
The basic premise behind Apollo 18 feeds off the longstanding controversy as to whether mankind actually landed on the moon, a debate that still rages on. The idea of a secret mission to the moon and extraterrestrial life feed into the government cover-up mentality that many people maintain – to this end Apollo 18 delivers. For most of us, the representation of the lunar surface and physics should not hinder the enjoyment of Apollo 18, even five years after the film was produced. Apollo 18 offers much in the way of plot, character development, a fairly accurate representation of the moon, and the intrigue of a government cover-up and extraterrestrial life – what more could one ask for in a film?