Spooky action at a distance: Apollo 18 on DVD
by Dwayne A. Day
|When you think about it, space enthusiasm is really just another form of science fiction fandom.|
Apollo 18 falls into an obscure niche of this vast diaspora of real, imagined, and fantasized: the alternative history sub-sub-genre of science fiction. Many people argue that it’s not a good film, some even call it a bad film. Jeff Foust negatively reviewed the movie on this site (see “Review: Apollo 18”, The Space Review, September 6, 2011), and I followed up with a defense of the movie and a comment that I hoped that the forthcoming DVD would contain some special features that would at least better explain how the film got made (see “Defending Apollo”, The Space Review, September 26, 2011). The DVD has now been released, and it does have some interesting extras. It includes a commentary track by director Gonzalo López-Gallego and editor Patrick Lussier, deleted scenes, and alternate endings. Unfortunately, there is no making-of documentary short showing us the sets and props and how the movie was filmed. Considering that most of the film takes place inside the constrained LM or on the bleak surface of the Moon we’re not missing much, but it would have been neat to at least see the soundstage so we would have a better idea what the one at Area 51 looks like.
The premise is that this film is actually a documentary based upon “found footage” that was kept secret by the government and then somehow leaked. That’s a concept with a long lineage, but it was really adopted by the horror genre starting with The Blair Witch Project in the late 1990s and continuing more recently with the Paranormal Activity films. In this case the viewer is told that the US government mounted a secret mission to the Moon in the mid-1970s (the Saturn V launch was disguised as an unmanned Earth orbital mission). It is not really possible to discuss the movie in much more detail without spoiling the plot, so consider this a warning: if you don’t want the story spoiled, then stop reading now.
As I wrote back in September, there were several things that I liked about the film. One was the commitment to technical accuracy. The footage looks like an Apollo mission. The equipment is accurate, and the surface of the Moon looks like the surface of the Moon. Although this film was made on a shoestring budget, it looks good, even when it was made to look less than cinematic, like recovered documentary footage. The film therefore proves that if NASA wants to fake the Moon landings (again!) they can now do it on a reduced budget. That should make the politicians happy.
Another thing that Apollo 18 did well was remain internally consistent and logical. Once you accept the premise—that the United States flew a secret Apollo mission to the Moon—then the film holds up. In fact, the writers have been meticulous in their approach. At several points in the film a savvy viewer might wonder why something happened, or how certain plans or events occurred, and surprisingly the writers had thought of the answers.
For example, one problem with the “secret mission” story is that the Soviet Union should have known about it and would have gone public. The film’s answer to this is that the Russians did know, and in fact, had already flown a failed mission to the same location where Apollo 18 landed. Needing help, the Russians turned to the Americans and both sides kept the missions secret. Eventually the Apollo 18 astronauts stumble across the Soviet LK lunar lander and its dead cosmonaut. Another potential plot hole was the Command Module Pilot in lunar orbit. Why would he abandon his crewmen on the surface? The answer is that if he did not comply with orders from Earth, Houston would not send him the required guidance data to return to Earth. Clever, sophisticated storytelling, based upon the actual Apollo program.
|Much of the movie was shot on 16 millimeter film to obtain the grainy documentary look that they wanted. Often the cinematographer would scratch the film prior to putting it in the camera in order to give it an aged, damaged look.|
The DVD’s deleted and extra scenes are not terribly interesting. One difference between the final version and an earlier version of the movie is that in the final version, both astronauts are totally unaware of their real mission and are in fact guinea pigs in an experiment being run from Earth. An earlier version of the script had the commander knowing more about the real mission than his Lunar Module pilot. The commentary track is not dull, but is probably of more interest to budding filmmakers than it is to the general audience, or the space buff. The two men leave out context and details that would have been illuminating.
From their comments, it is apparent that López-Gallego was hired relatively late in the production, being on the job for only a few weeks before he started shooting. Indeed, Apollo 18 was much more like a television production than a movie. In movies, directors are generals, selecting actors, shaping the script, approving set design and the overall look of a film. In television, directors are often hired based upon their ability to keep to a schedule and get things done, with the producers making all the major decisions. Neither man explains why the film’s release date was repeatedly changed, although it is clear that they were working on the movie right up until August 2011, only a few weeks before the premiere. They also mention several separate filming periods, without explaining if they were brought back to fix problems or if this was a budgeting issue.
The commentary never slows. The two men talk constantly and enthusiastically. But usually they talk about a specific scene or how they shot something, and rarely do they step back to provide context. The commentary suffers from several clichés common to DVD commentary tracks. Everybody involved was “great,” they were all super-talented, they all had fun, blah blah blah. Although show business can be a nasty place full of deceit and intellectual theft, nobody has a permanent job, and so rarely does anybody ever say anything bad in public about anybody, lest they find it impossible to get hired again.
The two men do provide some informative comments. They explain, for instance, that the movie was filmed in Vancouver and the computer generated effects were done in Russia. None of it was filmed with what would be considered conventional cameras, with much of the movie shot on 16 millimeter film to obtain the grainy documentary look that they wanted. Often the cinematographer would scratch the film prior to putting it in the camera in order to give it an aged, damaged look.
|Based upon box office, the film has already been modestly successful. We can hope that it has therefore made it easier for the next filmmaker who wants to make an Apollo-themed movie to get funding.|
Perhaps the most interesting story was that the original plan was for the “moonsters,” as they called them, to be large creatures. In fact, the script originally had one of the creatures attacking and damaging the Russian LK lander. But the initial CGI footage looked “silly” as one of the men said, and they decided instead to go with the small, spider-like creatures that we really only glimpse in the movie. That was certainly a good choice, and one of the creepiest aspects of the film comes when the rocky lunar surface starts to move.
The commentary track contains very little information on the questions that most interested me—how did the film originate, and where did they get the great sets and props. There’s almost no information on the former question other than executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein hired Gonzalo López-Gallego with production already underway. Although Brian Miller is officially credited as the writer, López-Gallego and Lussier mention that they had to deal with a bunch of writers, including some who seemed to show up for a day for a quick rewrite and then disappeared.
Although they mention the people who built the props and sets, we learn nothing about the Lunar Module exterior and interior and the Command Module exterior sets, nor the lunar rover and Apollo spacesuits. I heard a rumor that they are actually left over from the late 1990s HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, but the men don’t mention that. They do say that the Soviet LK lunar lander was built for the film, and rightfully gush over its quality. But that is all.
Apollo 18 is probably of interest only to hard-core Apollo buffs. Based upon box office, the film has already been modestly successful. We can hope that it has therefore made it easier for the next filmmaker who wants to make an Apollo-themed movie to get funding. Hopefully the beautiful Lunar Module and LK sets are safely stored in a Vancouver warehouse somewhere, ready for the next production. Or maybe they’ve been returned to Area 51 in case a future president decides to fake a Moon landing.