Earlier this week, NASA felt the need to clarify that Apollo 18 is not a documentary, but a work of fiction, in spite of some marketing claims that suggest otherwise. But what if it wasn’t? The film purports to be constructed from footage made during a secret mission to the moon conducted after NASA’s last known lunar mission, Apollo 17. But for it to be real, Apollo 18 would not only have to come from a universe in which American astronauts discovered heretofore-undisclosed mysteries on the moon, it would have to come from a universe in which at least some people saw that footage before now and made films inspired by it, specifically Alien and The Blair Witch Project.
In fairness, combining science fiction, horror, and mockumentary creepiness isn’t a terrible idea. Dry NASA footage just needs a nudge into the uncanny to seem spooky, and other films, most recently The Box, have explored the disturbing side of our urge to explore space. But make no mistake, Apollo 18 is a terrible movie. Director Gonzalo López-Gallego doesn’t seem to understand that going to the far reaches of plausibility makes successful found-footage horror films like Blair Witch, The Last Exorcism, and the Paranormal Activity movies work. Instead of trusting static shots to build tension or locking viewers into the terrified first-person perspectives of one character or another, Apollo 18 is cut, cut, cut like a lost chapter from Natural Born Killers, with mismatched distressed film stocks and an aggressive sound design to match.
All that headachy busyness fails to mask an absence of inspiration, as an ill-fated team of astronauts head to the moon, where they find a seemingly abandoned (and secret) Russian craft, plus evidence that the moon might be crawling with—spoiler?—aliens. Unpleasant when it isn’t dull, Apollo 18 never sells the lost-footage illusion, and never compensates for it with scares. Jolts, sure. Like so many lazy horror directors, López-Gallego knows how to startle, but not how to frighten. Worse, the astronauts’ foes, once revealed, prove more laughable than disturbing, and the action remains annoying rather than unnerving as a pair of interchangeable clean-cut astronauts start shouting at each other and rushing from one place to the next as the yelling gets louder. It’s an interminable, intolerable entry in the cinema of “What was that?!?” In space, no one can hear you scream, but frustrated sighs are another matter.