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Dumb as a Box of Moon Rocks

by Shawn Stone on September 7, 2011

Apollo 18
Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego

In case you lost track, the last U.S. moon mission was Apollo 17 in 1972. The premise of Apollo 18 is that the NASA space program was hijacked by the U.S. Department of Defense for one final, top secret trip via Saturn V rocket to the moon. According to the opening titles, what we see is actual top-secret footage uploaded to the Internet by the brave bloggers fighting for truth and justice.

Um. . . . OK.

What’s right and good about this slow-burn thriller is the way it stays within the unforgiving parameters of the premise to tell its story. Everything we see either looks like low-res, black-and-white, raw NASA video transmitted across thousands of miles, or slightly faded, 40-year-old Kodachrome that could have been shot by the astronauts themselves. It’s an inherently claustrophobic approach, the success of which depends on filmmakers with a steel grip on pacing.

And for a while, it works.

Little time is wasted getting to the lunar surface. After some perfunctory clips of the astronauts talking about their families and expressing ambivalence about the mission’s secrecy, there’s a launch that presumably no one in South Florida notices, and a brief space flight out of Earth’s atmosphere. Soon enough, the pilot (Ryan Robbins) is circling the moon in the command module while the two astronauts in the lunar module (Lloyd Owen and Warren Christie) are planting the flag, installing top-secret radio equipment and collecting moon rocks.

The astronauts keep to their checklists of tasks, but things start to go wrong. The characterizations are right on; these are cool-under-pressure flight officers right up to the point something gets under their skin—literally.

The filmmakers—and in this case I’m talking about director Gonzalo López-Gallego and producer-presenter Timur Bekmambetov—put some thought into the fiction part of this science fiction. They have fun with an alternate reality in which the hapless, underfunded Soviets also make it to the moon, and in imagining the kind of alien that might exist on the barren, airless rock orbiting Earth. They don’t have enough clever ideas, however, to distract us from the improbabilities that eventually wear down our interest.

And I’m not talking about the aliens.

The scenes on the moon are too heavy. Literally. Apollo 18’s astronauts don’t bounce around the lunar surface the way Neil and Buzz and their brethren did. Gravity seems to have the same pull it does on Earth. This is not a small complaint; if the filmmakers could have afforded to simulate the proper, lessened gravitational pull, it would have affected the aliens’ presence and actions in the lunar module. And the poor science wouldn’t wear down our suspension of disbelief.

Well, the bad science and the fact that nobody in Apollo 18’s NASA talks like Chuck Yeager. Doesn’t anybody read The Right Stuff anymore?