Monday, July 30, 2012

The Scary, Dark Side of the Moon

Last week, I was in the mood to watch a movie, and so I rented Apollo 18 (not my first choice, but it was the only scifi/fantasy flick available at my local Red Box).  Apollo 18 is a science fiction/horror film that tells the story of the "actual" last mission to the moon--not Apollo 17, as is commonly believed.  Three astronauts are sent on a top-secret mission to the moon to plant motion detecting devices that will (allegedly) alert the United States in case the Russians launch any missiles.

The tagline for the movie was: "There's a reason we've never gone back to the moon."

In theory, it's a cool premise, and there were moments in the film that were actually intriguing.  There is something about space that is inherently terrifying if you let yourself think about it too long, and this movie did a good job of playing up the idea of the dark side of the moon, and the darkness of the craters, as something where danger could lurk.

The cinematography was another aspect of the film that added to the threat of hidden terrors on the moon.  It was shot in a documentary style, with the claim at the beginning of the film that this footage was recently discovered and posted on the Internet.  This cinematographic choice really contributed to the sense of the unknown throughout the movie.  Much of the "footage" for the film came from the cameras that the astronauts set up, and it is from this footage that we first see movement outside the LEM that is definitely not the astronauts.  But there is interference on the footage right at the key moments of movement, leading  viewers to wonder whether or not their eyes are playing tricks on them.  It's a clever idea, and one that creatively utilizes technology to enhance a sense of the supernatural and the fantastic.

But unfortunately, this same aspect of the movie ultimately gets in the way of a satisfying conclusion.  While the interference on the video footage is helpful in building suspense throughout the movie, continuing with this same visual effect during the climax of the movie--when the creatures need to be revealed--gets in the way of the viewer really being able to understand what is going on.  When the movie was over, I was left with more questions than answers about what the creatures were, how they harmed humans, and what exactly had happened during the final moments of the film.  There were also some rather pedantic, logistical questions that I had--how did this video footage get posted online? for example--that weren't really relevant to the plot, exactly, but that got in the way of me being able to really suspend my disbelief and get scared by the film.

[spoilers follow]

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film, though, is what the scary creatures end up being.  They are rocks.  Moon rocks.  As I watched the film, I couldn't help but compare it to another movie with a similar plot: the Doctor Who special The Waters of Mars.  In that television special, a space colony is threatened by water that is alive, rather than rocks--and to me, water is much scarier.  It can easier infiltrate almost any building, and since humans are about 60% water, evil water could become part of us without us even noticing.  Rocks are much less subtle, and therefore for me, much less scary.

The other problem brought to light by the comparison with Doctor Who is that I didn't care about any of the characters in Apollo 18.  One of them, Ben Anderson (played by Warren Christie) is given a young son in an attempt to make us feel something about him, but this plays like a cheap trick, rather than actual backstory.  In The Waters of Mars, I not only cared about the Doctor, but I cared about several of the members of the space colony, whom I had just met.  And  if Doctor Who can do this in an hour, Apollo 18 should definitely have been able to do it in 86 minutes (which, incidentally, ended up feeling much, much longer).

Ultimately, while the movie has an interesting premise and creative cinematography, it falls short of this promise.  For a scary movie set in space, you would be much better served by the Doctor.

By Jen Miller