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'Blair Witch-on-the-Moon' has its moments

Posted: September 8, 2011 - 3:52pm

“Apollo 18”
Apollo 18 Productions
1 hour, 26 minutes

I was excited about this week’s movie, the Blair Witch-on-the-Moon tale, “Apollo 18,” because it adds one more film to a small genre that I really enjoy, that of the sci-fi conspiracy thriller. There really aren’t many of these movies, mostly because it’s such a narrow field. A little to the left and it’s just a political thriller, and too far to the right and you’re in full-blown spaceship mode. Off the top of my head I can think of two films that really fit the bill, “Capricorn 1” and “Hanger 18,” as well as most of the episodes of the “X-Files” that didn’t involve werewolves or leech-men.

These movies are usually not very good, to be honest. “Capricorn 1” stars Elliot Gould, O.J. Simpson, and Sam Waterston, the guy from “Law and Order.” Gould has done some good work, but despite the cool they-faked-the-Mars-landing-and-now-they’re-going-kill-the-astronauts-to-keep-them-quiet plot, no one really distinguishes themselves in this film. It, however, was way better than “Hanger 18,” whose big claim to fame is that it stars daytime talk show phenom Gary Collins. I really remember very little about this movie other than there was a UFO, a chase on the highway with an 18-wheeler, and that I loved it. I’m guessing I was 7 or 8 when I saw it, so that should give you an idea of where I was at, critic-wise.

So, armed with my fond memories and the fact that I’ve never denied that “The Blair Witch Project” scared the hell out of me, even when it became cool to do so, I embarked on a potentially terrifying journey to the moon to find out, as the posters tell us, that “there’s a reason we never went back.” Good tagline.

Good movie? Well, I guess that’s up for debate. The problems with it are numerous. First off, despite the advertising campaign, this movie is neither a conspiracy thriller or a ghost story, either of which would have been better than what it all turns out to be. I won’t spoil the secret, but not because I want to protect you, the potential viewer, but because I can’t think of any way to type it without it sounding incredibly stupid. It is stupid. Really stupid, but somehow, it plays better than it sounds.
Employing the “found-footage,” pseudo-documentary style made famous by “Blair Witch,” and used dozens of times to varying success in the following years, “Apollo 18” begins with interviews of three astronauts, prepping to travel to the moon, but irritated that their mission is top-secret and that their wives and families have to be lied to about where they’re going.

Eventually, we get to launch, and what follows is about 30 minutes of dullsville. The crew reports back to Earth. The crew needles each-other. The crew eats dehydrated food. The two main characters, I think one of their names was Nate, eventually land and we get to see them wander around making incredibly banal comments about how great it is to be on the moon.

Then, just about the time I was fixing to nod off, something wierd happens — one of the rock samples collected by Nate or Ben or Nick or whatever his name was goes from being locked safely away in a contamination-proof container to lying free and easy on the floor in the middle of the lunar lander. It’s a small thing, but the effect is instantaneous. You are immediately on your guard, a dozen possibilities for this odd little mystery running through your mind.

After that, things start happening fast and the movie gets much creepier and, even though the ultimate truth is utterly preposterous, the last half of the movie is actually pretty intense and fairly scary. You really begin to feel for Bill or John or Stan, or whoever, and forget about the myriad technical issues, most of which just get worse as the movie rolls on to the inevitable climax.

I recently read a blog article online where the author lays out some major guidelines for found-footage movies. It was pretty interesting, but the gist was that these films benefit from being able to work from a completely stripped down screenplay and are able to utilize relatively small budgets because you can hint at the special effect going on right off camera and never really have to show the monster or ghost or whatever.

The trade-off, however, is that you put your film in a very strict box. If all this footage is supposedly untampered, unaltered film that was recovered after some tragedy or cataclysm, the audience must believe that all of it was filmed by the protagonists, and more importantly, that the film has some reason for existing. In the boring parts of any of these movies, it’s easy to believe. We’ve all made tedious home movies, so it’s not hard to swallow that other people would film stuff that no one really wants to watch.

It’s during the exciting parts that it all breaks down, however. Whether it’s “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield,” you can’t help but shout at the screen, “Just put down the stupid camera and run! Why are you still filming this?!”

“Apollo 18” tries to solve this problem by suggesting that NASA would have put cameras all over the lunar lander, as well as positioning some outside. In addition, the astronauts are tasked with recording their feelings and interviewing each other on a small hand-held camera, thus ensuring that there would be tons of footage, from multiple angles, to choose from. This works for a while, but by the end you’re back to cursing Fred or Jerry or Kyle for continuing to film as he scurries away from whatever terror occupies the lunar crater he happened to wander into.

In the end, I can’t really claim that “Apollo 18” is all that good. The first half is boring, and the second half is pretty silly. The idea that much of this was actually filmed, even just in terms of the narrative — forget the studio’s hope that you’ll believe “Apollo 18” is actual NASA archival footage — makes little to no sense.

However, the movie did make me jump several times. When it clicked, it really clicked, and I can only wish the screenwriters had used this awesome opportunity to tell a story that had even an ounce of merit. After all, Blair-Witch-on-the-moon is a heck of a pitch. Too bad “Apollo” couldn’t live up to it.

Grade: C-

“Apollo 18” is rated PG-13 for  language and some fairly frightening images.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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